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Whatever the Future May Hold, Paper Has a Rich History

The Paper Trail makes the case that paper is one of history's most revolutionary technologies even as its contemporary importance fades.

The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention

Publisher: Penguin
Author: Alexander Monro
Publication date: 2015-03

At the outset of his history, Alexander Monro makes a persuasive case that paper, though it may have lost pride of place in the age of electronic media, will continue to be a mainstay of communications technology for the foreseeable future. Sales of e-books seem to have peaked with many readers still preferring the tactile and visual appeal of paper books to screens, and it's worth noting that while the typical high school student might have a tablet or laptop in her backpack, on any given day she's also probably lugging around several hefty textbooks, too.

With the anxiety (for some) about the future of paper out of the way, Monro is able to focus on the main theme of his history: the development and increasingly widespread use of paper as a means of information storage, knowledge dissemination, and thought expression fundamentally changed the essential character of civilization; hence, its status as a “revolutionary” invention. Monro moves ably through vast historical territories -- ancient China, early Islamist caliphates, Europe in the middle ages and the early modern period -- describing how the relative convenience and affordability of paper made it an engine of historical change in numerous contexts. For example, it was, he argues, seminal to the spread of Buddhism in China as well as Islam in the Middle East. It was also integral to the dissemination of Martin Luther’s polemics against the Catholic Church and the rise of Protestantism.

Along with abetting the diffusion of religious movements, another result of the emergence and widespread use of paper was governance of nations and empires. It allowed for copious record keeping, bureaucratic correspondence, and the composition of histories and other works that helped disparate peoples and groups establish unified identities. Indeed, in some contexts the diffusion of paper seems to have been as integral to the work of conquest as the sword -- in, for example, the case of the Mongols who eventually came to realize its importance in maintaining control over the lands they seized.

Of course, it's impossible to discuss the importance of paper without acknowledging that it's merely the medium, not the message. Writing long predated the invention of paper in the historical record, and stone, shells, wood, bamboo strips, clay, and parchment were in use long before and after the advent of paper. The great advantages of paper over competing materials include its relative expansiveness (broad, flat sheets), its capacity for large-scale production, and its affordability (though by contemporary standards it has been fairly expensive for most of its history). These qualities allowed for an unprecedentedly large volume of written or printed communication compared to competing materials.

Of course, its relative cheapness also made paper déclassé in some contexts, with parchment, for example, esteemed in the early Christian church as a more fitting vehicle for correspondence and composition because of its greater cost and substantiality. This scheme of value is virtually the opposite of what exists today. After all, one principal reason for the persistence of paper is the sense that it makes a given communication “special” in a way that electronic media have yet to match. (Perhaps the death knell for paper will have been rung when engaged couples send out their wedding invitations via email.)

Here it should be noted that The Paper Trail is as much a history of writing and reading as it is of material technology. Indeed, sometimes more so (the study of paper proper does not begin until page 75). The vast amount of information about subjects such as the history of Chinese characters, say, or Persian calligraphy sometimes obscures the larger argument, but the confident handling of so much information is genuinely impressive.

Monro’s contribution here is not original research, but rather, a careful weaving of many, many strands of academic scholarship. A glance through the very substantial bibliography, nearly 300 entries, reveals his reliance on scholars whose work virtually defines the historical study of both print culture and reading and writing practices throughout history, among them Elizabeth Eisenstein, Robert Darnton, Alberto Manguel, Roger Chartier, and Anthony Grafton. This is no knock. Historical studies that synthesize more obscure academic work are absolutely crucial to the dissemination of knowledge to the larger culture, benefiting both scholars and non-scholars alike, especially when they are as cogent, substantial, and lucidly written as this one.


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