Review: "On Paper" by Nicholas Basbanes

Friday, May 8, 2020

A Note on Books

Nicholas Basbanes On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History (Knopf, 2013) 


During this time of social distancing and shelter in place, museum staff are reading and re-reading some of the books on our shelves. Here are a few words on what we’ve reading. 


Nicholas Basbanes published On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History in 2013, and it is a wonderful, accessible look into this material we all use so frequently. In fair disclosure, the museum is mentioned in favorable terms in the book, so we were predisposed to like it. In-depth chapters on hand- and machine-made papers provide context for how paper has become such a necessity. Basbanes focuses on the industrial process, tying together industrial innovations, economics and imports, and the need to reduce expenses and maintain profits. Throughout the book are descriptions of papermaking innovations and changing processes. The science behind these advances is clearly explained in layman’s terms, keeping the book accessible for those who have not had a chemistry class in years. Basbanes interviews numerous people about their experiences with paper, and their enthusiasm about the subject clearly shines through in the work.  


A favorite chapter is near the end—“In the Mold” where Dard Hunter’s legacy is discussed, and Kathryn and Howard Clark revisit their journey to create Twinrocker Paper. Other chapters detail how currency paper is made—and why the United States has not moved to a plastic currency, or how paper facilitates the documentation of ideas so that others can repeat them. These excursions into some of the uses of paper, or formation of paper, and how their effects ripple outwards, affecting other parts of human life are engaging and interesting. For example, American audiences are familiar with the Stamp Act leading to the eventual American Revolution. But what does this have to do with paper? Paper was taxed, and a stamp affixed to the paper showed that the tax had been paid. But paper and its use has affected other historic developments, such as the Sepoy Rebellion in India in 1857 or how a passport—a paper document—acted as a means of legitimacy and authenticity for centuries.  


The book can be read in intervals- chapters are mostly stand-alone. Through numerous examples, paper becomes the tool for understanding how people communicate, plan, and dream.  The subject is interesting to both those who are already interested in paper, and those who know nothing about paper. It is a “keeper” on our bookshelf, and one we would be sure to loan out to anyone interested in paper.