What I’m Reading Now

Another in the series and another that’s been on my reading list for years. I going to divide this entry into two parts because of pressing work and some nagging health stuff. The cover of Nicholas A. Basbanes’ book tells the story, On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year-History by a Self-Confessed Bibliophiliac.

And indeed it does begin even before the Chinese invented paper with a brief survey of other writing surfaces, none of which proved as portable and durable, though papyrus gave it run for some time.

Basbanes is writing the history of the world in one substance in global terms – movement of people and goods, the development of literacy, etc. He includes some terrific details that add context to the global sweep. For example in the years preceding the Civil War only two percent of paper mills operated in the Confederacy, which led to shortages of currency as well as newspapers and other printed material. A shortage of the rags used to make paper forced extreme recycling. Publishers bound one book in yellow polka-dotted wallpaper, Basbanes reports.

So far my favorite chapters are “Goddess by the Stream” and “The Sound of Money.”

The former offers detailed information on the dying art of Japanese papermaking where all is done by hand. I loved that a Shinto shrine is dedicated to the ruling goddess. The close attention to every minute detail of the process needed to produce the revered washi reflects an aspect of the Japanese character – and at the same time becomes an expression of that character, which Basbanes explains with loving care.

Paper in Japan was not always put to benign use. The book includes a description and drawing of Fu-Go, the paper bombs that the Imperial army sent along air currents to the United States during World War II. The fact of these bombs never received wide notice even after six people died near Klamath Falls, Oregon. For more on Fu-Go, check out Radiolab.

Tomorrow: Crane and Co.

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