Paper Thin

Review: ‘Paper’ by Mark Kurlansky


In Woody Allen’s film Zelig the title character, an ineffectual also-ran with no visible personality, shows up as a photo-bomb extra at all the big events of 20th century history without influencing any of them. The profundity underneath the running joke is somehow that even nebbishes have lives, or as Milton put it, "they also serve, who only stand and wait." I think of this movie reading the obituaries in major newspapers (is reading obituaries a sign of increasing age?). These always rely on a hook to the most common way the history of our times is told. There aren’t enough really famous people from the A list dying on a daily basis, so the B and C lists are mined to make readable copy, yet always linked to the same master narrative of history that runs (for Americans of my generation) through Elvis, JFK, the Beatles, Vietnam, and Watergate. Today’s dead person was the manager of famous rock group X we’ve all heard of. Or was briefly married to Box Office Legend Y. Or was the secretary to politician Z who was involved in the famous scandal.

I also thought of Zelig while reading Mark Kurlansky’s Paper. Paper is a Zelig-like product to Kurlansky: it is there at a lot of important times in history, or at least its first cousin is (much space is devoted to the question of whether what the pre-Colombians wrote on was actual paper or tree bark), but it isn’t the main show. Focusing on paper allows us to reprise many of the familiar scenes, and we get the joke of the slight misdirection of attention.

This engagingly written book is a ramble through history as most people learn it (relentlessly chronological, organized by civilizations, starting with Mesopotamia and ending with protests against the environmental damage of paper mills in China), using paper as the hook. What was paper up to in the pre-Muslim Arab world? Not much actually, but stand by for the Qur’an, the Word of God made calligraphy. What did the Italian Renaissance have to do with paper? What were the Mayans up to with—well, maybe it wasn’t paper, but you get the idea? And so on.

Telling history by focusing on what seems to be a relatively small feature is what the author does: two of his previous books (the bio credits him as a "New York Times best-selling author of twenty-eight books") include the similarly mono-themed Salt and Cod. In this way it’s (hold on to your hat) thoroughly postmodern and so, in its way, hip.

Postmodernism presupposes knowledge of the Master Narrative in order to reject it, all the while grinning at us to make sure we appreciate the act of rejection. It’s like the Bergdorf Goodman display windows I saw in New York a while ago where, instead of mannequins in clusters front and center, the space was defined by numerous mannequins’ arms and legs reaching in from the sides—and the center empty. If you don’t get what’s supposed to be in the middle of the window, you don’t see why this wry alternative is clever. If you didn’t grow up looking at Renaissance portraits or Medieval church images where the important stuff is the focus, you don’t "get" Morris Louis’s "pours" that leave the center of the canvas white with sloppy rainbows of color descending from the sides at an angle. If you don’t know the basics of history, this winsome focus on what even the author admits is a humble commodity just seems odd.

Of course, the history the author presupposes in order to brush aside isn’t your grandfather’s history, but instead your father’s. The Master Narrative of history to which paper plays the Zelig is not the traditional Western version: Greeks to Caesar to Alexander to Chartres to Florence to the Industrial Revolution. Instead, it’s the history of, say, thirty years ago, all nicely 1980s and 1990s multi-culti. It’s the Chinese to the Arabs to the benighted Westerners to the Enlightenment to Chinese resurgence. But even this version of history, so hip a few decades ago, isn’t in the center of the window any more: instead there’s nothing at the center. The Zelig of paper photo-bombs the Major Events over and over, seemingly at random.

Of course, like all postmodernists, Kurlansky has a theory for this. His boogieman is what he calls the "technological fallacy." This is the notion that it is object X or process Y that changes our lives: technology itself is the power that alters history. Nowadays most claims of this sort are made about the computer. For others, it has been writing, or gunpowder, or the printing press, or the telephone. Or the stirrup. Yes, the stirrup. One of my seminal undergraduate books: Lynn White on the fundamental changes wrought on Medieval society by the introduction of the stirrup. (Firmer seat on the horse = better grip on the lance = knights in arms as they came to be.)

Kurlansky is having none of this technological fallacy. It’s not things that change the world, he insists. No, he says: "It is exactly the reverse. Society develops technology to address the changes that are taking place within it." So it isn’t paper that changes the world, it’s the world that expresses its change through paper—or whatever technological object we’re focusing on. So, we wonder, why does the world change? And what changes it? We never hear.

This leaves the reader hanging through hundreds of pages of diverting factoids about history. I didn’t know, for example, that "rag-pickers" stripped the bodies at Waterloo and Gettysburg to sell their bloody clothes to rag-paper mills. I didn’t know about the mechanics of a modern tree-pulp paper mill. I didn’t know that the pre-Colombians sacrificed people with paper-like streamers in their hair—by burning them to death.

The author has shoved in non-paper factoids, too, about the clay tablets that displayed the cuneiform of the Babylonians, for example. The cave pictures of Lascaux. The abacus of the Chinese. The knotted rope messages of the Incas, called quipu. The mechanical watch of the 1300s, which replaced the water clock. Old technology rarely disappears completely, he insists. He’s right: go to Hong Kong today and the shop-keeper on a side street is likely figuring up the bill on an abacus. Watch sales have dipped with iPhones, but the obscenely expensive ones (like $20K Rolexes and Patek Philippes) are doing well.

Kurlansky’s theme, as he makes clear in the introduction, isn’t paper at all: it’s all the ways we have for recording human thoughts. And that’s a pretty broad topic. He even gets to art later on—Rembrandt’s etchings, for example. But that’s where the constraints of his somewhat arbitrary Zelig begin to bind: why are the etchings more a recording of human history than the oil paintings?

According to the author, society changes, then technology emerges to express that change. Of course, not all technology successfully does this. People invent lots of gizmos that never catch on. He knows that not all technology wins out. "A technology that is introduced to re-direct society will usually fail." Yet at the same time, he tells us: "you cannot warn about what a new technology will do to a society because that society has already made the shift."

So we wonder: how can we distinguish a new technology that’s the tail trying futilely to wag the dog from the dog actually wagging the tail? Presented with a new technology, how do we know what is the natural outgrowth of that society and what isn’t? Of course, we don’t. If there were a way to guarantee what the public wants, all Hollywood films would be blockbusters, and many are turkeys, or just "meh," as New Yorkers say. The Segway didn’t catch on. The iPhone did. Why? We can’t say. And hasn’t the iPhone changed the world as it has been the expression of an underlying unspecified change?

Apparently we just have to see what wins out—and so does the author of this book. Yet he’s selling a kind of technological Social Darwinism: the ones that survive were the ones that were meant to survive. History does its thing, and the technology that expresses that history correctly is what survives.

So we can’t understand the play until the curtain goes down. To be sure, that’s what Hegel thought too: understanding only comes after the world has had its say. The owl of Minerva (goddess of wisdom), he says, only flies after dark. Continuity and lack of change we understand. What bothers us is change. Faced with change X, we can set out to explain that X: old age, say, or a volcanic eruption. But what caused the change that changed X? We have no idea, so the fact that Kurlansky doesn’t either isn’t a big deal. What’s bothersome is that he doesn’t seem to realize that’s the question we want answered most of all.

What’s clear is that Kurlansky likes paper, insisting that a new technology (like the computer) won’t replace the old, his Zelig. You may be reading this on an iPhone or computer rather than on newsprint, but you’ll send out expensive rag-paper invitations to your wedding. He also likes expensive paper, handmade paper—which, he insists somewhat forlornly, does have a function in an increasingly paperless world.

But that doesn’t sound like a victory to me. That’s how the past is preserved, after all: not as functional objects, but as expensive ceremonial "antiques" for special occasions, like white tie or ballgowns. That’s how you know it’s the past or exceptional, when it’s no longer part of the present. Now the descendants of European settlers in America pay lots of money for the battle gear of Native Americans, or put them in museums—rather than shooting the people wearing them. Is that showing respect or gloating over trophies?

Kurlansky seems to be battling a straw man. Few people, I’d imagine, think paper in every form will completely disappear. But I think it’s likely to become a specialty item, a sort of conscious archaism, the way meatloaf and cupcakes have become expensive urban comfort food for millennials rather than the staples of ‘50s suburbia. Our grandchildren will probably know what paper is, but they probably won’t use it for the same things our grandparents did, or even that we do now.

Things really do change, but Kurlansky can’t tell you why they do, or how they’re going to. But hey, that’s the thing about change: nobody else can either.