Sunday, November 16, 2014

On Paper: A Grand History of an everyday necessity: How Nicholas Basbanes looks at History

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Nicholas Basbabes has a way with words. He writes clearly and elegantly on one of the most humble objects we see around us, whose use we take for granted and yet do not realize that without paper the world would have been that much poorer. In the course of this rather long, ans at time rambling account of the history of paper, Nicholas Basbanes traces the diffusion of paper from China to Europe as a result of the Mongol Conquest. Though in Egypt the reed papyrus was used as a writing surface at least from the time of the pharaohs, the Romans after the conquest of Egypt introduced papyri to Europe. The fall of the Roman Empire, the awful revolution as Gibbon called it separated Egypt from the Western Roman Empire  and animal skin, vellum replaced papyrus as a writing surface.

Basbanes shows that China was the earliest civilization to manufacture paper using fibre extracted from trees. paper making was considered an art form and throughout East Asia hand made paper was used extensively for writing and painting. From China the technology diffused to the Islamic world and in the medieval period, Syria and Fatimid Egypt were centres of the production of paper. The Islamic conquest of Spain brought this  new technology to Spain and thence it spread to the rest of Europe. There is no doubt that paper and paper making exerted an enormous influence on the cultural armature of the western world. Without paper one cannot think of the Gutenberg Revolution, the  Printing Press which marked the beginning of Western ascendancy over the rest of the world. Basbanes ignores the role of India. In India we have evidence of the use of paper as early as the first century BC in the buddhist text, Milindapanho, the Questions of King Menander.  However, in India memory (Smrithi) and Voice (Shruthi) were always prized over writing and therefore we do not have the same sort of wide spread use of paper as we find in Europe.

The most interesting parts of the book deal with the various events in History in which paper played a decisive role" the Stamp Act that launched the American Revolution and the paper around the greased cartridges that ignited the flames of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India. The author traces the establishment of the paper industry along the rivers of North America and also stresses the environmental impact in the form of the depletion of forests. The discovery of cellulose as an alternative made it possible for the rapid growth of the Cotex product (the sanitary pad) and the kleenex tissues which saved thousands of lives in the trenches of World War I. The cultural impact of the paper industry was indeed enormous. The author then discusses the more specialized kinds ofpaper used in the printing of passports and currency notes.

The book is based on extensive research and is certainly packed with useful information.

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