Material historian Mark Kurlansky tells the history of the world through things. In his bestselling books Cod and Salt, he focuses on a particular commodity and explores how it has shaped our global society. Readers will find his latest offering, Paper: Paging Through History, an engaging and informative journey through the history of paper, printing and writing.
Kurlansky focuses on an idea he calls “the technological fallacy.” This is the commonly held belief that new technologies change the world. For example, hasn’t our world changed impressively since the birth of the Internet? But Kurlansky asks us to think differently: It is not so much that new technologies change society, he argues, but that social evolution drives technological innovation. Technologies develop to support social change.
This was as true for ancient Sumeria, Kurlansky proposes, as it is for us. Writing, as we know it, developed in Sumeria as characters called cuneiform that were pressed into clay tablets that denoted trade in commodities. As trade grew, society developed a need to record it. But clay tablets were heavy, and not easily portable, so from that need emerged the invention of papyrus, a lightweight writing material made using the reeds that grew by the river Nile.
Following the trail of his subject throughout history, Kurlansky begins with Han China, when paper as we know it was most likely invented. After six centuries, during which paper was exclusively an Asian phenomenon, Islamic cultures switched from papyrus to parchment to support developments in mathematics. European paper-making lagged far behind until the Italian Renaissance in the 1500s. Following his topic across time and cultures, Kurlansky leads us into the 21st century and current debates about the end of printing.
Capacious and elegant, Kurlansky’s Paper is an essential history of the stuff books are made from.