Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Between the sheets - a history of paper

     I read the following review in The New York Times while on holiday in Honolulu last week so of course had to immedi8ately go out and buy the book from Barnes & Noble at Ala Moana.. It is a beautifully produced and handsome hardcover and a bargain at US$27.95. 400 deckle-edged pages. Then of course there are the contents. I have four other Kurlansky titles on my bookshelf and am very pleased to add this one.

‘Paper,’ by Mark Kurlansky

An 18th-century Chinese paper mill. Credit De Agostini/Getty Images
Paging Through History
By Mark Kurlansky
Illustrated. 389 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95.
Paper holds the world together. It wipes our foreheads, cleans up our spills, bags our groceries and disposes of our waste products. It floods into our ­mailboxes at home and across our desks at work. And it’s not going away anytime soon. From the late 1970s, futurologists predicted that we would soon work in paperless offices. Though paper use in offices is decreasing, the average American in white or pink collar still generates two pounds of paper and paper products a day. That in turn is only part of the more than 700 pounds of paper that the average American uses in a year.
A sheet of paper can be a work of art, its surface rich with life and visual interest. Timothy Barrett, the MacArthur fellow and master paper maker, moved to Japan to learn how to make washi: a translucent paper so delicate it hardly seems material. In more recent years, he has studied the solid white paper, made from cloth rags, that Europeans used for books from the 14th century on. These papers, he says, “had a kind of crackle and made you want to touch them.” Now he makes them as well, from the proper ingredients, raw flax and hemp.
Paper can be scary. For centuries, empty white pages tormented unproductive writers, as motionless cursors do now. In the 19th century, newspapers appeared several times a day, posters covered exterior walls and pillars, and shopkeepers wrapped everything from fish to books in paper. Improved methods of manufacture yielded paper cheap and plentiful enough to serve all these needs. But the new supply came at a high human cost. Herman Melville unforgettably described one of the new paper mills that fed the cities’ appetites: “At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper. . . . The air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted, subtilely, as motes in sunbeams, into the lungs.”
Mark Kurlansky has written wide-­ranging histories of cod and salt. Now he has turned to another apparently insignificant, indispensable subject. More than 2,000 years ago, the Chinese realized that plant fibers, now known as cellulose, could be beaten, mixed with water and then left on a screen to drain until a sheet — a sheet of paper — remains. This modest, practical insight changed the world. Millenniums before anyone knew what cellulose was, paper makers separated it strand by strand from wood and silk, cotton and seaweed, and devised a writing material that is still cheaper and more adaptable than any other.  MORE

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