Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Paging Through History

Review: Paper by Mark Kurlansky


Its invention lost in the mists of time, the humble sheet of paper was once a groundbreaking, world-changing technology. We aren't accustomed to thinking of paper as "high-tech," and yet its use was once a peerless indicator of civilization. Paper lies at the root of record-keeping, and that is the sine qua non for complex societies.

Mark Kurlansky has superlative talent for presenting history in context, not only of its own time, but how the times and cultures he describe support what came later, what we use today. That expanded context makes a basic technologymaking and using papercome alive as a sophisticated invention.

Before paper, and usually long after it, parchment was the quick medium for records. Think about that, Kurlansky bids us—to make a record, we needed only to wait until the animal whose skin we want to use is full grown, has been butchered and skinned, and has had its hide tanned, scraped thin, and bleached. No wonder records were routinely erased from parchment to provide a palimpsest for new writings.  

Of course, there were older modes of writing, in mediums like fired clay and stone. But until the advent of paper, nothing could be recorded lightly, spur-of-the-moment. No jottings, no idle doodles. No revisable blueprints or scratch engineering diagrams. Gutenberg's invention waited on a disposable medium, and literacy, the expectation that everyone would be able to read and write and freely trade ideas, waited on Gutenberg.

As I read, I learned about an invention that had been created over and over, wherever human society advanced far enough to require it. "Real" paper composed of pressed, matted, randomly-oriented plant fibers has had its substitutes: tree bark, crushed and rolled to make it pliable; long stems of papyrus or young bamboo, split and opened to provide a strip of writing surface; silk fabric; thin plates of slate or metal; whole leaves; slats or thin shingles of wood. All were used, along with parchment and stone; but nowhere did reading and writing become part of everyday life until paper was widely available.

"If you can read this, thank a teacher," reads a popular bumper sticker. No, this book argues, if you can read it, thank Gutenberg. 

And for Gutenberg, thank the invention of paper.