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The Paper Trail

The unexpected history of the world’s greatest invention

Alexander Monro


The world’s greatest invention? More so than, say, the wheel?

The book itself doesn’t make that argument, and the first I knew of that subtitle was when I saw the completed cover design. But the book does argue that paper’s easing of the spread of knowledge, ideas, beliefs and stories has enabled much greater levels of equality to be achieved over the long term. That is a remarkable achievement for such a nondescript product.

What is “unexpected” about its history?

Chiefly the interaction between what you might otherwise think of as quite discrete historical civilisations, such as between imperial China and the Islamic Caliphate, or between the Islamic Caliphate and early Renaissance Europe. These interactions enabled cultural cross-fertilisation and are a reminder that the achievements of any particular civilisation are built on the acquisition of ideas, beliefs, scriptures, stories and more from outside itself.

There’s mysticism about the virtues of reading paper books over e-books. Is it justified?

It’s certainly understandable. The life story of paper coincides with the age of large-scale, book-based, organised religions. These religions (Buddhism, Manichaeism, Islam, Christianity) conveyed great spiritual status on their physical scriptures, which then became the basis for civilisations – and, thus, for the literary canons of those civilisations. The sacred power of scriptures was then transferred somewhat into the larger canon, too, even in deeply secular cultures. In the West, the Christian scriptures have largely lost their status, but the codex has often continued to be viewed as the bearer of life’s deepest truths and perhaps even the key to the inner life. Then there is the tactile pleasure and the sense of ownership you can enjoy over it.

There was mysticism about the virtues of one of paper’s predecessors, too – bamboo. People were as suspicious of paper as they are now of e-books.

They certainly were. And that fact helps us to differentiate the sentimentalisation of physical books from very valid arguments about their strengths. Paper’s great advantage (in terms of its use for text) has been its availability to all. If it now becomes a luxury item, then it loses what has made it most transformative through history. The mass reach of new media is undoubtedly a great strength.

It’s not just writing, though – paper has had many applications.

It has thousands of uses. In terms of sheer heft, the other most important use of paper is for packaging. But its use for writing has fomented the greatest revolution.

Your specialty is China and this is quite a Chinese story, isn’t it?

It very much begins as such, in a culture obsessive about a handful of Confucian texts and determined to run and organise its empire in writing. That obsession enables the emergence of paper culture.

There was, however, paper in India. Why is that not so significant?

Paper first emerged in China but there are then examples of early paper-making in South Asia, too. The Paper Trail is about mass movements and how paper was able to transform whole cultures and continents. The story of paper in South Asia was more fraught in the early centuries, not least because Hinduism tended to spurn the page. It was really only the arrival of Islam which altered that.

How did paper reach the rest of the world?

It was from China – not India – that the Islamic (Abbasid) Caliphate learnt paper-making, and from the Caliphate it spread to Europe. For the Abbasids, suddenly ruling over such a vast empire, paper enabled their bureaucracy and then their arts and sciences. The handover (from East Asia to the Abbasids) is usually dated to a battle in 751 in Central Asia, after which Chinese slaves were taken to Islamic Central Asia and supposedly taught their new masters the craft. Europe owes its know­ledge of paper-making to the Abbasids.

One of paper’s final stopping-off points was New Zealand, whose Treaty of Waitangi you use to illustrate the limitations of the written word versus an oral culture, in this case Maori.

It’s a remarkable story in its own right, but it also demonstrates the limitations of literate culture, which we tend to idealise. Paper culture was often linked to imperial culture – post-colonial studies have helped to highlight the weaknesses of paper culture.

What’s the oldest paper you touched while researching your book and what was that like?

Early Buddhist sutras found in the cave at Dunhuang (see chapter five), from perhaps the fifth-century AD. The earlier sutras are better quality, the paper finer and smoother (tinkling when you shake it), which was probably symptomatic of veneration trumping speed of production or financial concerns.

Is The Paper Trail available as an e-book? Will we get more out of it in its paper form?

Yes it is available as an e-book, and rightly so. Paper itself was very important technologically for the world; it would be inconsistent to then ignore the great strengths of digital formats. But compared with the paper codex, the digital “book” is impersonal and intangible. The digital experience cannot compete with the paper experience.

What if paper had never been invented? How might the world and its history be different?

My guess is that mass religion would have been less intellectual and more exclusively experiential, that oral culture would have been more dominant, and that shifts towards greater political emancipation for all kinds of groups would have been harder to achieve. And then what would I have written about?

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