Not many people would leap at the chance to travel with a group of paper historians to the far reaches of southwestern China to witness traditional papermaking done essentially as it has been done since its invention nearly 2,000 years ago.
But Nicholas A. Basbanes, “a self-confessed bibliophiliac” (the term roughly translates as someone who loves, loves, really loves books), has made a later-life career of exploring the worlds of fellow book-obsessed souls and in the process has mapped a fascinating, little-discussed corner of cultural history. His first book, published when he was 50, was the surprise bestseller A Gentle Madness (1995), an illuminating, often amusing look at book collectors. His previous book, About the Author (2010), explored the creative process of writers. Now he turns his attention to the medium that enables his bibliophilia to flourish: paper. Thus a trip to China, where papermaking originated, is a no-brainer for Basbanes.
In fact, On Paper is constructed around a series of road trips, visits and face-to-face interviews. There is the trip to China to begin with, another to Japan, and a visit with Jonathan Bloom, a scholar of Islamic art at Boston University, as Basbanes traces the dissemination of the art and science of papermaking from China and Japan, along the Silk Road to the Arabian Peninsula and Europe, and on to the Americas. Later in the book, Basbanes visits the Crane & Co. mill in Dalton, Massachusetts, where the increasingly security-conscious manufacture of U.S. currency paper has been going on since the family-owned business first won the government contract in 1879. In his chapter on the use of paper for identification documents—and the counterfeiting and forging of such documents—Basbanes gains permission to visit but not photograph the restricted spy museum at CIA headquarters, and later still he goes to see the massive pulping operation where the NSA disposes of something like 100 million highly sensitive documents a year.
This, really, is only the beginning. Basbanes’ interest in paper is encyclopedic. He writes informatively about everything from paper trails to red tape, from the technical issues of papermaking to the high art of origami, from paper’s use in warfare and sanitation to the American revival of handmade craft papers. He is particularly adept at reminding us that there are fascinating personalities engaged in every facet of papermaking and paper. His research strategy, he says with a nod to Graham Greene, has been to evoke “the human factor” behind all this activity.
Basbanes also writes, “My driving interest points more to the idea of paper, one that certainly takes in the twin notions of medium and message but that also examines its indispensability as a tool of flexibility and function.” Readers will likely finish On Paper newly appreciative of not only paper’s flexibility and function but also its ubiquity. They will also likely conclude: A paperless society? Not in my children’s children’s lifetime.