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

by Nicholas A. Basbanes. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 448 pp. $35.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-307-26642-2.

Nicholas A. Basbanes has written about books in every possible context, the trilogy—A Gentle Madness (1995), Patience and Fortitude (2001), and A Splendor of Letters (2003)—establishing him an authority on manuscript and print material. Basbanes’s books about books, however, turned out to be the mere starting point for a more engrossing inquiry into a highly compelling subject he says should not come as a surprise. With On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History, Basbanes turns his attention to a product whose invention and methodical progress “was monumental, offering a medium of cultural transmission that was supple, convenient, inexpensive, highly mobile, simple to make once the rudiments were understood, and suited to hundreds of other applications, with writing being just the most far-reaching” (7).

Although the sequence of papermaking’s global spread is precise—beginning in China in 105 and heading eastward to Japan and Korea, then west across the Mediterranean and into Europe (beginning with Spain in 1056) and eventually, in 1690, to America—Basbanes’s strategy is unified not by chronology but by what he, acknowledging novelist Graham Greene, calls “the human factor” (xv). This tactic allows Basbanes to highlight the variegated people involved in a history of the ubiquitous product indispensable to daily life.

Basbanes argues that scholars have mistakenly considered paper and printing “as allied technical advancements, with paper usually getting the shorter shrift of the two, especially in the impact they have had on the diffusion of culture” (4). His guiding premise is “to demonstrate that paper is a substance of utility, almost always defined by the task at hand” (219). An association of British paper historians, he points out, has identified 20,000 commercial uses of paper, but Basbanes embarks on a thematic approach that treats paper as an idea, encompassing its role as medium and message while examining its flexibility and function. “Paper,” Basbanes writes, “is light, absorbent, strong, plentiful, and portable; you can fold it, mail it, coat it with wax and waterproof it, wrap gunpowder or tobacco in it, boil tea in it. We have used paper in abundance to record our history, make our laws, conduct our business, correspond with our loved ones, decorate our walls, and establish our identities” (xii).

A paper mill is of course a business, and On Paper features three companies in America—where the increasing need for paper in the 1760s led to the Stamp Act, a British tax. The profile of Kimberley-Clark, who in the early twentieth century gave the world Kotex, shows how ingenuity creates a niche and fulfills a hygienic need, while the chapter about P. H. Glatfelter, Inc., suppliers for textbooks, Hallmark cards, Post-its, postage stamps, beer labels, candy wrappers, and more, illustrates how twenty-first century marketplace uncertainties, including the rise of electronic media and pressure by environmental activists, can inspire opportunity in commodity paper. The portrayal of Crane and Company, Connecticut-based makers of American currency paper since 1879, corroborates belief that its one hundred percent cotton stationery (i.e., treeless) is the only socially acceptable brand for US presidents and British royalty. “But paper is still paper,” Basbanes writes, “and the larger consideration is that the actual or implied worth of any document relies almost entirely in what has been written, drawn, or printed on its surface” (220).

Putting words on paper at times generates an incriminating paper trail that gains worth by what it can prove or disprove as, for example, with the widely known Hiss-Chambers Pumpkin Papers, Rosenbergs’ sketch of a nuclear device, Pentagon Papers, and Watergate. “As a force in shaping historical events,” Basbanes explains, “paper rarely draws attention to itself, yet its role is evident to varying degrees in scenario after scenario” (xiii). However, Basbanes’s tour of the National Security Agency (NSA) and his visit with Tony Mendez, the Central Intelligence Agency’s former master of disguise, reveal the surprising extent to which “pencil and paper remain the essential tools of the cryptologist’s craft” (207) and “how profoundly intelligence agencies have relied on paper to achieve their furtive goals.” (162). At least one hundred million secret NSA documents, Basbanes adds, are destroyed and recycled for use in pizza boxes every year.

On Paper does not aim to show how misguided is the thought of a paperless society, but the book deals an unintended setback to advocates for a looming digital juggernaut. It opens with a discussion of Francis Bacon’s statement, in 1620, that “paper is a tenacious substance” (3) and closes by examining the function of paper at the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. When left without modern technological media, victims of the terrorist attack turned to pieces of paper which, Basbanes notes, are “the only artifacts of consequence to emerge from the Twin Towers in any recognizable form” (353).

Basbanes demonstrates prowess as a perceptive, comprehensive researcher who combines instincts as a seasoned investigative journalist with a knack for spinning a yarn, using appropriately understated first-person narrative that highlights the subject and not the author. In fact, Basbanes utilizes a unique version of “saturation reporting,” the phrase coined by Tom Wolfe in 1970 to describe a type of new journalism practiced by a vanguard whose identifying characteristic was total immersion in the subject. Basbanes plunges into the multifaceted idea of paper, his adventurous inquiry so extensive (the bibliography lists 196 books) that readers indeed can be sure they are getting “the everything” he promises.


William F. Meehan III

Wilmington, Delaware