Engineering & Transportation
On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History and over one million other books are available for Amazon Kindle. Learn more
Buy New
  • List Price: $35.00
  • Save: $10.37 (30%)
FREE Shipping on orders over $35.
In Stock.
Ships from and sold by
Gift-wrap available.
Add to Cart
Want it tomorrow, April 25? Order within and choose One-Day Shipping at checkout. Details
Trade in your item
Get a $3.75
Gift Card.
Have one to sell?
Flip to back Flip to front
Listen Playing... Paused   You're listening to a sample of the Audible audio edition.
Learn more

On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History Hardcover – Deckle Edge

See all 3 formats and editions Hide other formats and editions
Amazon Price New from Used from Collectible from
"Please retry"
Hardcover, Deckle Edge
"Please retry"
$19.24 $19.24 $20.00
"Please retry"

Frequently Bought Together

On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History + Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks
Price for both: $42.95

Buy the selected items together


Looking for the Audiobook Edition?
Tell us that you'd like this title to be produced as an audiobook, and we'll alert our colleagues at If you are the author or rights holder, let Audible help you produce the audiobook: Learn more at

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 15, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307266427
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307266422
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.7 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #47,810 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

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.


Praise for
“Nicholas Basbanes is an especially congenial writer, a quality he displayed memorably in A Gentle Madness. He does it again most pleasurably in On Paper, a wide-ranging investigation into the “everything” of that ubiquitous and indispensable construction of cellulose fibers whose history paralleled — and made possible — the rise of civilization…Mainly, though, On Paper is a travel book, conducted by the most amiable and civilized of guides.”
-David Walton, Dallas News

“Basbanes has poured his heart and soul into this splendid survey of a beautiful human invention.”
-Philip Marchand, Canadian National Post

“This is not a simple history of paper’s discovery and the spread of the material…Written as a first-hand exploration, On Paper takes a close look at a product so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible and makes the reader see how really amazing it is.  Basbanes reveals how paper changed the world—over and over again.”
-Pamela Toler, Shelf Awareness (Starred Review)

With On Paper, Basbanes, the consummate bibliophile’s bibliophile, offers an erudite, mesmerizing story about how something we consider so everyday has shaped our lives.  In our age of supposedly dying print, Basbanes’s book is at once a compelling scholarly achievement and a provocative invitation to reconsider and celebrate what is truly one of the wonders of the world, that fragile yet enduring skin upon which humanity’s knowledge and vision are tattooed: paper.”
—Bradford Morrow

“A delightful and intrepid guide in this capacious history of paper…A lively tale told with wit and vigor.”
-Kirkus (Starred Review)

“An absolutely fascinating tale.  Told in an engaging, accessible manner, Basbane’s coverage of the topic is wide-ranging, freewheeling, authoritative…An essential, engrossing book that no book lover should be without."
-Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review)

"A wonderful, fascinating and timely book on a subject some have prematurely declared obsolete. Basbanes reminds us of the vital role the invention of paper has played through the centuries in the dissemination of knowledge and ideas. His stories that run the gamut, from the way paper  is made to a poignant sheet of paper floating down to the sidewalk on September 11, 2001. Not to be missed."           
-Meryle Secrest

“Pretty much irresistible.”                                               
-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Alfred A. Knopf
October 2013

More About the Authors

Discover books, learn about writers, read author blogs, and more.

Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
5 star
4 star
3 star
2 star
1 star
See all 60 customer reviews
For the book lover, historian and art history major.
pixels and bits
Because the author is just as interested in the uses of paper, his possible subject matter was obviously limitless, which explains the wide-ranging nature of the book.
N. B. Kennedy
On Paper communicates more than the history of paper (which actually is interesting in itself to my surprise!)
George I. Greene

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By N. B. Kennedy TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 27, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
You have to love an author whose favorite scene from a movie (Searching for Bobby Fischer) involves a chess prodigy and a piece of paper!

Nicholas Basbanes' book about the history, uses and importance of paper includes plenty of bits of trivia like this, as well as indepth looks at the invention of paper, its uses down through the ages and its future going forward. It's all very interesting, although it took me awhile to figure out that the book's focus is somewhat split between the making of paper and the usage of paper. Because the author is just as interested in the uses of paper, his possible subject matter was obviously limitless, which explains the wide-ranging nature of the book. "If there's a common thread to be discerned in this strategy," Mr. Basbanes writes of his book, "it is what Graham Greene sagely called, in one of his novels, "the human factor."

Mr. Basbanes visits papermakers, interviews executives at successful paper companies such as Crane, Marcal and Avery, and describes the making of such specialty paper as that used for minting money, an increasingly complex job due to the sophistication of counterfeiters. He delves into the arts, examining the manuscripts of Beethoven, the canvases of Whistler, and the diaries of Da Vinci, and discusses the exacting art of architectural blueprints. He even devotes a chapter to origami and how the intricate folding of paper has advanced the science of launching space telescopes. (Who knew that there were paper-folding algorithms!
Read more ›
Comment Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback. If this review is inappropriate, please let us know.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Lisa VINE VOICE on November 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"On Paper" aims to describe the meaning and uses of paper from all angles and throughout history. The author has done the work, and looked at paper around the world, thoughout history, from its most basic to art and to high technoligy; with an (over) abundance of detail.

While you have to admire the detail and passion that comes through, the book fails to actually get at the core of paper - at least for me, I want to understand the paper as a physical substance, but there's little detail past handwaving on the various steps of papermaking. The author seems less interesed in the physical stuff than in the idea of paper... or perhaps he knows it so well that he takes it for granted. There is a wearying amount of life details about various people (and places) who have or had sometime in history something to do with making, manufacturing, researching, storing, repairing, collecting, selling, buying, or using paper.

The chapters on paper money and especially the one on espionage were quite interesting, though.
Comment Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback. If this review is inappropriate, please let us know.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By John Kwok HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on September 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Nicholas Basbanes' "On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History" may be among the best nonfiction books published this year. He is a most captivating, often engrossing, storyteller, and one whose latest book may be viewed as the definitive popular history on paper. Basbanes mixes successfully, paper-making technology down through the centuries, pivotal moments in world history where paper has made an important, often lasting, impact, and the biographies of some of the most important papermakers in paper's history. There is a most memorable chapter devoted to the Sepoy Rebellion in India shortly before the United States's own civil war, that could be seen as one last gasp in resurrecting the fortunes of the Mughal Dynasty against the overwhelming influence of the British East India Company. The book closes on a rather somber, though important, note, noting the impact that paper had in tracing those who died and those who survived the 9/11/01 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Comment Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback. If this review is inappropriate, please let us know.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
To understand this book's main focus beyond the obvious - paper and its uses - it is helpful to understand what the book is not: a chronological or traditional history. And I'm grateful for that because the author writes that the book is "about the idea of paper' as well as its vital place in world civilization. Think of how you use paper and it might be easy to list money, stamps, and notebooks. Or maybe mailing envelopes. Thank you notes.

But author Nicolas A. Basbanes goes far beyond those common items and describes in impressive detail how politics, international incidents, wars, and more were all affected by important documents, vital illustrations, and other crucial information dependent on paper. He certainly convinced me that American as well as world civilization might never have occurred in exactly the same way if not for paper. Numerous examples are given, from the Pentagon Papers to a forged memorandum crucial to the Dreyfus affair - and much more.

The scope and depth of the book is impressive and Basbanes didn't confine his research to relatively accessible locations. He didn't turn to experts he could simply interview over the phone. He also traveled widely, not only in the U.S but also internationally. In Japan he met with an actual Living National Treasure papermaker. He was persistent - and finally successful - in gaining access to the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland to see where approximately one hundred million ultra-secret documents are pulped annually, often recycled into the pizza boxes and egg cartoons used by the average consumer.

This is only a very small sampling of what can be found inside this wonderful and intriguing work. I thought perhaps I'd find it dry, overly detailed, and dull.
Read more ›
1 Comment Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback. If this review is inappropriate, please let us know.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again

Product Images from Customers

Most Recent Customer Reviews