Does paper have a future? | For centuries, we thought of paper as a wonderful and indispensable invention. Yet in recent years, we seem to have been striving towards a paperless society, suggesting it now has negative connotations. For his book Paper: Paging Through History, Mark Kurlansky traces paper back to its origins and follows its path towards the digital age, and he joins the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss.
“One of the great changes in human history.”
The most important part of a conversation about a book about paper, is the paper of the book: “A book on paper ought to be on nice paper,” says Mark. They had a meeting to discuss it, and the book is an absolute delight to hold and read.
We associate paper as being made from wood pulp, but that’s a fairly new invention. It used to be second hand clothes. No one really knows the who or how of paper; China teach that Cai Lun invented it, though archaeologists have found examples that pre-date his life by a century or two. Paper is made through cellulose fibre, and it turns out anything containing that can be used to varying degrees of success – the book includes one example of someone using a potato.
Europeans were late adapted, and the Eastern, Arab world were really the ones who brought the innovation to the continent. The Vatican centuries ago had 500 books in their library; Arabian libraries had hundreds of thousands. We never wrote down transactions or laws – we were very, very behind other areas of the world.
Paper, formally described as “randomly woven fibres”, has its obvious pluses and minuses. In the UK if a law is issued it’s written on velum; someone suggested the government could save a lot of money by just using paper and it caused a massive uproar.
Plato is another interesting example of shunning paper: he called it ‘artificial memory’, and that no one holds true knowledge if they have to defer to the written word. The same could be said today for Googling everything. Dante is another; he had the chance to be the first great writer to use paper, he became the last to use parchment.
Digital is the buzzword when it comes to paper and its journey, but Mark notes, “Imagine a society where nothing is written down – that’s one of the great changes in human history.”
“It was the way to get a political movement going.”
Another of the greatest is changes is printing. Unsurprisingly, Europe wasn’t the first though it seems to act as if it was. Moveable type was first used in China centuries earlier, but didn’t catch on given the complexity of their language and characters. Gutenberg was our equivalent, and it was revolutionary.
“Until social media, it was the way to get a political movement going,” explains Mark. It brought power and knowledge to more people. Literacy is a tool to destroy power, but equally power can try to repress literacy for various groups. For one, “it made women troublesome”, or so the tale goes.
The hour goes through the rise and all of newspaper, how the journey of paper often ties to literacy, the falsity of how the Declaration of Independence was written and signed, and the digital conundrum. That barely touches on what’s in the book. Speculate as some might, Mark says that there will never be a paperless office, or a paperless world. Ebooks and digital have given choice, and while there’s choice, some – many – will always choose paper.
As for his book? Chair Allan Little says, “You’ll get a ‘Blimey, I never knew that’ moment on every page.”