On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History

Book review by Deane Barker

This is an…eclectic history of paper. It starts where you would expect it to – somewhere in China, where paper was invented. The author traced the history while on a “paper history” tour.

But then the book goes to some fascinating places as it investigates the role paper has played in our lives, in all its different forms and permutations.

Such as:

  • The use of paper to pack gunpowder into early muskets
  • The concept of a “hard copy” and scandals that result of “paper trails”
  • How the CIA’s disguise team fakes “official papers” and counterfeiting in general
  • The usage of notebooks and sketchbooks by artists and researchers
  • Origami, and the usage of paper as art
  • The universal value of printed designs and architectural drawings
  • The special paper manufactured for currency
  • The rainstorm of paper from the twin towers after 9/11, and the efforts to preserve some of it

The book ends with that last one, and there’s a poignant story of a piece of paper wadded up and tossed out of one of the towers just before it colapsed. On it, someone had written:

84th floor
west office
12 People trapped

In reading that, I was struck by the natural universality and utility of paper as a communication mechanism. Of course someone would write that down and try to get it into someone else’s hands.

This is a lovely book, but you have to let it lead you around. It meanders quite a bit, but I never regretted picking it up. Each chapter was interesting for whatever reason, even if I couldn’t figure out what angle the chapter was taking until a copy of pages in.

(Actually, that might be my one complaint. The book is divided up into parts, none of which seem at all differentiated from each other, in addition to the chapters being quite cryptic. They all have titles, and opening quotes from various people, but, like I said, you sort of just have to start reading to figure a chapter out.)

Good book. I enjoyed reading it.

Book Info

Nicholas A. Basbanes
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A hardcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

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