"The sensual experience of reading still exerts its hold on us, as does the desire to represent and display our knowledge, attitudes, and passions on our bookshelves."
The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention by Alexander Monro follows the story of paper from its earliest mentions over 2,000 years ago to current times.
In the first chapter, Monro notes the many uses of paper: “paper remains the warp and wool of everyday life, as a brisk walk through your day can prove. Your bedside lamp glows through a paper cover. The painting in your hallway is printed on paper and set behind a paper mount. There is a roll of paper beside the toilet in your bathroom…” And on the list goes -- money, billboards, kites, gift wrap, menus, flyers, and cigarettes.
Given the numerous uses of paper, most likely paper will never completely disappear. From the things we need and depend on, like toilet paper and product packaging, to the things we might like to be rid of, like junk mail, a paperless world is hard to imagine. A printless world, however, might be easier for some to imagine, and depending on which side of the print debate you fall, a soon to be printless world has been heralded, lamented and/or rejected for years.
In 2007, tech journalist Adam Penenberg proclaimed: “Print is doomed” and continued on “Perhaps you think rumors of print’s impending demise are exaggerated. They aren’t. But don’t worry. You won’t miss it either.”
Several years later, The Atlantic suggested the death of print had been "greatly exaggerated" and promised that “the end of print is a long way off”, in large part because 82 percent of US parents think it’s very important that their children are exposed to regular books and not just tablets and e-readers. Print books aren't popular just in the States. A May 2016 article in The Telegraph proclaims "Books are back: Printed book sales rise for first time in four years as ebooks suffer decline".
Monro also weighs in on the print debate, and this debate provides an important focus for the book. Monro notes that paper age may be passing, but he sides a bit more with The Atlantic as he contends that the end of the paper era doesn’t mean that print will disappear: "Leaving the paper age does not mean leaving paper behind; we still use stone, iron and bronze… Although Amazon now sells as many e-books as it does printed books, the switch to e-books has already slowed considerably, and readers still like to browse through and buy books they can hold, put on their shelf, turn the pages of, and own. The sensual experience of reading still exerts its hold on us, as does the desire to represent and display our knowledge, attitudes, and passions on our bookshelves."
Perhaps not surprisingly then, Monro keeps the book's focus narrow and spends most of his time in The Paper Trails looking at paper as a medium for writing and the connections between paper and words. He notes: "Paper has reinvented itself into hundreds of forms and uses over the centuries. Yet its ingenuity lies less in its ability to switch from supplying cardboard boxes and toilet rolls to kites and Chinese screens than in its role as the porter of the written and printed word for two millennia. All other roles in paper’s drama have been the heroes only of sub-plots. Words have been the unquestioned lead, dominating a story that continues to operate on a monumental scale. It is this story that I set out tell."
And quite a story it is. Paper’s journey spans centuries, countries and continents, and Monro writes about each detail with beautiful thoughtfulness. It may make some want to hold on to their print books and paper and pencils just a little bit more tightly.
Writing and paper may go hand in hand, but as Monro explains each developed quite differently. Writing, Monro tells us, “could almost be classed an inevitability. Sumer, China and Mesoamerican all developed writing unaided, giving the practice as we have seen, at least three birthplaces.”
Paper was not inevitable, but rather “a child of chance”. As writing came to occupy a larger place in society, it needed a partner. Silk, papyrus, clay tablets, turtle shells and bamboo all had flaws. Paper did (and does) as well, but it was still a superior medium -- cheaper, plentiful, often easier to use -- and slowly its popularity began to grow.
Paper’s journey, or trail, begins in China. Whether or not paper was first invented for writing, no one seems to know. Trying to determine who invented paper is an equally murky task, but paper moved from China to Korea to Japan to other parts of Asia. It spread to Africa and to Europe as well. Often religions were instrumental in the spread of paper. In turn, paper influenced religions as well: “Chinese Buddhism found an ideal partner in Chinese paper. It did, of course, spread on bamboo, too, at least initially, but bamboo was a less neutral agent… Paper… was the ideal populist conduit for an imported religion. Both the style and the content of the writing could aim beyond China’s elite -- more people could afford to own its texts too.”
Monro does an excellent job of providing an overall picture of paper’s place in society and shows how religions, cultures and governments all changed paper but in return were also changed by paper. Consider Genghis Khan, a seemingly unlikely figure to enter the paper conversation. Khan and the Mongols were almost reluctant converts to the paper age, and “they were centuries late in taking up paper and only a new way of life -- as imperial settlers -- could persuade them of its virtues. Yet persuade them it did. Even nomads could see the ability paper had to control and to legitimize… In winning over the Mongols, paper had proved its extraordinary capacity to convert even the most alien powers to its use.”
Each culture and time period left its mark on paper and helped create all of paper’s many trails. In turn, paper changed and, according to Monro, is still changing the world: “Each person who reads books, newspapers, office reports, leaflets or labels has formed a new branch of the trail of his own. Every living reader is simply the latest destination in 2,000-year-old journey that began in China and ends, for the moment, in a billion pairs of hands.”