Paging Through History

nolead begins By Mark Kurlansky

W.W. Norton. 416 pp. $27.95.

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Reviewed by Michael D. Schaffer

nolead ends Mark Kurlansky has created a niche writing about things that we take for granted.

Cod, his briny and brainy "biography of the fish that changed the world," won a James Beard Award for Excellence in Food Writing in 1999. He has written about salt and oysters and frozen food, all with a flair that can make the mundane mesmerizing.

Now, Kurlansky studies an item we use every day, probably without thinking much about it: paper. He surveys the history of paper from its initial appearance in China more than 2,200 years ago to a digital present in which computers challenge paper's dominance as the vehicle for recording human activity.

Paper is more than simply an account of how the technology of papermaking developed. Kurlansky tells us not only how paper was made, but also why. Like any technology, papermaking did not create social change; it responded to social change. "Technology is only a facilitator," he writes. "Society changes, and that change creates new needs." In other words, necessity is the mother of invention - a point Kurlansky belabors.

Once humans had taught themselves to write, the search was on for the best writing material. Stone, clay, parchment, wax, leaves and papyrus, silk, bamboo, even animal bones, all had their day. But all had drawbacks. "Something as disposable as wax, as light as leaves, as cheap as clay, and as durable as parchment was needed," Kurlansky writes. That something was paper: light, thin, flexible sheets made from cellulose pulp.

"Exactly how paper was conceived of is a mystery," Kurlansky tells us. "It bears no relation to the writing materials that came before it."

However it developed, papermaking spread from China to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, then westward to India. From there, it marched through the Arab world, entering Europe after the Muslim conquest of Spain. From the Iberian peninsula, papermaking made its way to Italy in the 13th century and later to other parts of Europe.

While papermaking was flourishing in Muslim Spain, the rest of Europe showed little interest at first. But by the late 13th century, European culture was flourishing, and "there was an increasing need for paper in a number of fields that had never been written about before, such as law, accounting, music, and mapmaking."

A survey that covers more than 2,000 years in little more than 400 pages, as Paper does, is bound to be fact-crammed and feel a little encyclopedic, no matter how gracefully it's written. It's a lot to absorb, but it's worth the effort.

Michael D. Schaffer is a retired book editor of the Inquirer.