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Book review: Two very different books about the history of paper — “The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention” by Alexander Monro and “Paper: Paging Through History” by Mark Kurlansky

Two new books about the history of paper — both tell the same story, right? Well, not really, and, in their differences, the books reveal much about the writing and reading of history.

Consider this paragraph from Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky:

It was a macabre scene on the deserted, wind-swept killing fields of the Napoleonic Wars before the burial details went to work. Ragmen picked through the dead, stripping off their bloodstained uniforms and selling the cloth to papermakers.

That’s a paragraph that will grab your attention. It opens a chapter that looks at the problems that paper mills in Europe had in finding enough rags to serve as the raw material in the creation of their product, a problem ultimately solved by the use of wood pulp.

Now, look at this poem from 811 A.D. by Chinese writer Bai Juyi that Alexander Monro quotes in The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention. It has to do with the death of his three-year-old daughter Golden Bells:

A daughter can snare your heart;

And all the more when you have no sons.

Her clothes still hang on the pegs,

Her useless medicine lies by her bed.

We saw you off down the village street

And watched them pile the earth on your grave.

Do not say you’re just a mile away —

Between us now lies eternity.


The inner life

In contrast to the battlefield scene, this poem, while filled with a sad beauty, may seem routine. After all, haven’t parents always mourned deeply when a young child dies?

Yes, but, as Monro explains, it wasn’t until paper became cheap enough and widely available within the Chinese culture that the inner life of an individual such as Bai could be communicated across great distances and even, as in his case, across centuries.

Beyond its functional uses for him as a bureaucrat, Bai employed paper for poems, diaries and letters that show “the pain of personal loss, the pleasure of intimate friendship, frustration over government corruption, anger at extremes of wealth inequality, spiritual epiphanies or moments of intense communion with nature.”

Indeed, Monro notes that Bai wrote so much that it is possible twelve centuries later to get a deep, textured feel for who he was and what made him tick.


A European or Asian lens?

Kurlansky is well-known as the author of bestsellers that tell interesting stories about such seemingly unlikely subjects as cod and salt, and he takes the same approach in Paper, providing a rambling stroll through the technological development and refinement of paper and its use by and impact on people. It’s the book of a former journalist, breezy and discursive, and will attract a lot of readers.


Monro’s The Paper Trail is much the better book, but that may actually hurt it when it goes head-to-head with Paper at online and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Much the better book
Much the better book

Here’s why: The use of paper, which began some 2,000 years ago in China, played a key role in the spread of Buddhism and Islam and the development of highly sophisticated and powerful cultures in the Middle East and Far East. But Kurlansky gives little attention to that part of the history. Instead, he tells the story through the lens of Europe, even though paper-making didn’t get started there until more than a millennium after it was employed in China.

Kurlansky’s book is rooted in a Western-centric world view that nowadays seems quite antiquated. It’s impossible today to talk about politics, business and culture except in an international context. What happens in an obscure corner of the world can have a major effect on the U.S., and vice versa.

History books need to recognize this as well, but, for the English-reading public, the details of the Chinese and Middle Eastern past are little known while names and locations in those parts of the globe remain rather alien. So it’s safer for a writer such as Kurlansky to stay within the comfort zone of readers. He deals with the Asian history of paper in about 50 pages and devotes the rest of his book to Europe and its colonies.


The Chinese character for “paper”

Monro signals a much different emphasis with the book jacket of The Paper Trail which features a large Chinese character for the word zhi which means “paper.” Indeed, he doesn’t even get to Europe two-thirds of the way through his narrative.

A former journalist who served in Shanghai, Monro dives deep into the Asian and Middle Eastern cultures to examine how the discovery and spread of paper permitted civilizations to blossom and also how paper broke down isolation.

Before paper, writing was put on such widely varied surfaces as turtle shells, bronze, stone, bamboo, silk, parchment, papyrus and even the shoulder blade bones of camels. All of these, though, were items only the rich or the government could afford.

Paper was different. It could be used for ephemeral writing, such as a first draft, and for personal writing. Indeed, once Chinese intellectuals began using paper for letters, they “expressed wonder…at being able to communicate with friends easily (and inexpensively) even when they were many miles away.”


The way life changed

In contrast to Kurlansky’s meandering approach, Monro tends to be more analytical and more focused on the way human life changed because of paper. He quotes one Chinese scholar as saying that receiving a letter from his friend “felt like meeting face to face.” This is an acute insight and calls to mind the way life changed when the telephone made instant communication possible across miles and even thousands of miles.

Much of Monro’s book details the tight links between paper and religion down through the ages. In Chinese Buddhism, for instance, paper made it possible for many more scribes to copy the faith’s scriptures. That was important because the simple physical act of writing out the holy texts was itself sacred and meretricious, regardless of the specific words in those texts.

Instead, their spiritual power was indivisible from their material, ink-and-paper presence, winning merit for their scribes, owners and worshippers alike. Copying a sutra was taken so seriously that a scribe would occasionally write it out in his own blood, in the hope it would work to the spiritual credit of a recently deceased parent (or himself).

Islam, initially, was slow to adopt paper — or any writing surface — for the Koran since the holy book is meant to be recited. Nonetheless, as a direct gift from God, the Koran had to be correct in all respects so an official written version was needed, and, from there, the sacred scripture went on to become the “lodestone of a new civilization,” enabling the creation of a far-reaching religious and cultural community.

This strong relationship between paper and religious expression also occurred in Europe where paper helped fuel and spread the Protestant Reformation — and the Catholic Counter Reformation. One example: The King James Version of the Bible, writes Monro, “has been the most influential book in the English language.”


Michelangelo and Bach

To give Kurlansky his due, Paper is filled with interesting tidbits as readers of his earlier popular histories would expect. In one case, for instance, he notes that Michelangelo used a great deal of paper for poems, letters, notes and drawings. Kurlansky writes:

Almost any piece of paper he used contained a few sketches…A stunning drawing of the resurrection of Christ is also marked with a shopping list.

For me, though, the most striking story in the two books comes from Monro’s The Paper Trail, and it has to do with J.S. Bach.

Monro points out that, during his lifetime, Bach won fame as an organist. Just a few of his compositions circulated among other musicians, and those were in manuscript form. None was printed until half a century after Bach’s death in 1750. And, when they were, Bach became Bach. Monro writes:

It might be tempting to see this as somehow a failure of print culture, but it can easily be seen as an example of printing’s success, since print offered the opportunity to revive a composer’s work long after this death, perhaps even to grant him the worldwide and enduring fame he had lacked in life.

In other words, without paper, we moderns might never have heard Bach.

Now, that’s a story to grab your attention.

Patrick T. Reardon


This review was initially published in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune on 5.15.16

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