Q&A with Nicholas A. Basbanes
Q. What inspired you to write On Paper?
A. After writing eight books about every conceivable aspect of books and book culture, it seemed logical that I turn to the stuff of transmission itself, and for more than five hundred years in the West – and much longer than that in Asia and the Middle East – the medium of choice has been paper. The actual idea to write a book about paper, though, was suggested to me in 2002 by MacArthur Fellow Timothy Barrett, during a speaking visit I made to the Iowa Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. I spent several days there with Tim – a world-renowned authority in the field of hand papermaking – and he regaled me with stories about its history that I found irresistible. The best part about it, from my standpoint, was that no book quite like the decidedly eclectic one I ultimately envisioned had ever been done before. This is not a formal chronology by any means, but a cultural history that takes in the full sweep of this remarkably versatile material, and discusses the impact it has had on the shaping of history.
Q. Can anyone date the first appearance of an actual book?
A. By “actual book,” I assume you mean a “book on paper,” in which case the earliest known printed book to have an actual date on it is the The Diamond Sutra, from 868 A.D., printed on paper from carved wooden blocks, and produced more than five hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg introduced moveable metal type in Europe. It was found in a cave in the Gobi Desert early in the twentieth century by the explorer Sir Aurel Stein, and is now in the British Library. But books have taken many shapes and forms over the centuries, the earliest ones written on clay tablets in Mesopotamia dating to about 3000 B.C. Others have been written on cured animal skins known as parchment and vellum, on laminated strips of a marsh reed known as papyrus, others have been incised on bamboo, silk, metal sheets, pottery, stone – whatever material was available at the time. But once introduced as a viable medium – and once the rudiments for making it from the pulverized fibers of a vegetative source were understood – paper transformed everything. It was cheap to make, it was light, pliable, resilient, portable, foldable – truly a miracle invention with a multitude of applications.
Q. This is a big question, I know, but what do you think have been paper’s greatest contributions to history?
A. I think the fact that paper has been the medium upon which so much of our history, our literature, and our cultural heritage have been recorded for close to a thousand years, and the medium upon which each generation over that span has been able to communicate with those that follow, has to come first. Of the eighteen chapters in my book, the one I chose to be the title chapter is devoted to this concept. Another deals with the role paper has played as a tool of the creative process, with generous attention given to the notebooks of Leonard da Vinci, Beethoven, and Thomas Edison. But paper has done so many other remarkable things, it is almost impossible to single out one function as being stronger than all the others. Architecture as we know it today, for instance, or engineering in which plans must be drawn precisely to scale, the making of photographic images, the emergence in Ottoman times of the modern bureaucracy, are unthinkable without the availability of this remarkable material.
Q. You write that “the paperless society we hear being bandied about so much today may not be as imminent as some people suggest.” How so?
A. There’s a wonderful quote I use as an epigraph to one of the chapters, an observation made in the 1980s by a historian of libraries named Jesse Shera. “The paperless society,” he said, “is about as probable as the paperless bathroom.” Many functions of paper definitely are on the wane, and we all know what they are, books, newspapers, correspondence, record-keeping and the like. But those account for just a fraction of the functions that paper facilitates, currency, toilet paper, photographic prints, wrapping paper, cardboard packaging, labels, food containers – it’s all paper – and I don’t see many substitutes for those products immediately on the horizon.
Q. What role do you see paper playing in the future?
A. There’s a company based in Pennsylvania, P. H. Glatfelter, that has more than tripled its business in barely a decade, and is now a $1.6 billion-a-year company, and they did it by diversifying to the point that they make paper for more than a thousand different commercial uses – paper for tea bags, postage stamps, greeting cards, candy wrappers, copying machines, while also supplying high-quality paper for use in the publishing industry. The companies that are going to survive and prosper, I believe, are the companies that have the will and the perception to seek out and serve a variety of niche markets such as these.
Q. The smart phone has become our generation’s diary, newspaper, novel, notepad, planner and so much more. What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks to this transition?
A. I think future generations may regret the absence of hard-copy diaries, journals, correspondence and the like from people living an exclusively electronic kind of life. These are artifacts that give us so much information about the way people think and how they live at a particular point in time, and to eliminate them as a resource for future scholars is a palpable loss. Think of what we would have missed if John and Abigail Adams had texted each other digitally during the years of the Revolution, and not written the kind of letters that truly span the centuries, or if their son, John Quincy Adams, had not kept a daily diary from the time he was twelve to a few days before he died in 1848 at the age of eighty. I write in my chapter on governmental red tape how the National Archives is working to develop reliable ways to insure that electronic records are stored in ways that they will be preserved permanently in standard formats, and “readable” to future researchers. In fact that’s the biggest challenge professional archivists face today, the long-term conservation of “born digital” materials.