December 17, 2018

The importance of ‘Paper’

A profound irony suffuses this book review.  “Paper, An Elegy” by Ian Sansom (William Morrow/HarperCollins, $24.99) is a celebration of the civilizing function of pulped vegetable matter, but you are reading about the book in the paperless environment of the Internet.  And so passes the glory of the world.

Appropriately enough, “Paper” is a superb example of print-on-paper publishing. The book’s paper stock is a pleasure to the touch, its typography is elegant to behold, its illustrations are exquisitely reproduced and displayed, and the words that Sansom has chosen to express are deeply rooted in what the digital natives among us insist on calling the “dead-tree” tradition of world literature.

Yet the book is slightly mis-titled. To be sure, Sansom has written a sentimental history of paper, but he always reminds us of the ways in which we will continue to rely on this ancient and humble material for things both great and small in our world: “Without paper, we are nothing,” he writes, alluding to the fact that our lives begin with birth certificates and continue to accumulate documents of identity until we are awarded a death certificate. “We are born human, but are forever becoming paper, as paper becomes us, our artificial skin.  Everything we are is paper: it is the ground of activity, the partner to all our enterprises, the key to our understanding of the past.”

So Sansom is not yet willing to concede that paper is obsolete. “Without paper our lives would be unimaginable,” he insists, although he is referring to objects other than books — after all, where would we be without tea bags and coffee filters, toilet paper and Post-it notes, napkins and emery boards.  “Will there be a continuing role for paper? Short answer: Yes.”

Sansom begins at the beginning with the invention of paper-making, the wedding of paper and printing (“[T]hey’re a couple; it’s a perfect marriage”) and the revolution that the printed book worked in history. “Books produced by this sort of method have been accorded responsibility  by historians for everything from the scientific revolution to the Protestant Reformation, to the collapse of the ancien régime in France, to the rise of capitalism and the fall of communism, and just about everything in between.”

But the author does not neglect the more mundane uses of paper; in fact, his argument for the importance of paper is all the stronger when it comes to functions that digitization will never replace, and toilet paper is only the most obvious. Artists, architects, and activists may resort to computer-assisted media, but he uses the famous image of Barack Obama by Shepard Fairey as an example of the unique and enduring power of paper.

“The Obama poster, initially printed by hand in a small batch by Fairey, and eventually reproduced everywhere on signs, flyers, stickers and badges, has an immediate, low-tech, anachronistic appeal: it suggests the workmanlike pull of ink through a screen with a squeegee, and thus the human scale of the Obama project,” he writes. “Paper, somehow, despite all the odds, remains radical.”

One nagging question is anticipated and answered in detail by the author in a passage that I found utterly (and characteristically) charming.

“In total, this book is made from twenty reams of plain white 80 gsm copier paper, fifteen A4 lined, narrow-feint pads, four Moleskine pocket notebooks, six packs of A5 lined index cards, fifty manila folders (green), and three wrist-thick blocks of Post-it notes (assorted colors),” he discloses. “The finished product is printed on Glatfelter’s Offset 70 lb. B18 Antique form a mill in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania — virgin paper with no added optical brighteners, made by a chlorine-free process and using pulp from woodlands that comply with guidelines set by the Sustainable Forest Initiative.” 

To which he adds a coda. “Too much?” he muses. “Too much. Not enough.”  I take his point — every book, but especially a book as full of delight as “Paper, An Elegy,” is itself a winning argument for the survival of paper.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at