In On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History, bibliophile Nicholas A. Basbanes brings to life the history, versatility, and cultural importance of this ubiquitous material.
This is quite a comprehensive history. Was there anything you wish you could have covered but didn’t?
I’d like to have covered lithography, wood engraving, photography, watercolors, and the like in greater detail, but there is a rich body of literature in each of those fields already, so with space being a consideration, I touched very lightly on the visual arts as executed and recorded on paper. As for places where I personally was cut out: I was only denied access to one place—actually, my requests were simply ignored—and that was one of the Schweitzer Mauduit mills, where cigarette paper is manufactured.
Have you tried any of the papermaking techniques you researched?
Yes, I felt it was essential to actually make some paper by hand, and I was fortunate in that I was schooled in the basics by Timothy Barrett, a MacArthur Fellow and international authority on papermaking, in a weeklong course he teaches with John Bidwell of the Morgan Library at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia every other summer.
What’s the strangest or most interesting paper-related item you’ve acquired?
It’s hard to top that $100 trillion note issued in Zimbabwe a few years ago that I got online for next to nothing. But I am a collector of many strange and unusual things, and in the course of my research for this book, I put together a small cabinet of curiosities of items that most people would likely regard as worthless junk. A strip of honest-to-goodness red tape, for example, that had just been removed from some old public records at the National Archives, and was about to be thrown in the trash—a nice detail to mention in a chapter about bureaucratic “red tape.” I also have a burn bag of the type used by our various intelligence-gathering agencies to discard highly sensitive documents. At the National Security Agency pulping plant in Maryland, I was given a small plastic bag of low-grade pulp that a few hours earlier had been top-secret work sheets.
You’re fleeing Earth as it’s about to be destroyed. What historical document do you take with you?
America’s birth certificate: the Declaration of Independence. I’d really lobby like the dickens to have those letters John and Abigail Adams wrote to each other during the years of the American Revolution on the spaceship, too; they’re so transcendent, so personal, they have to endure. And if you can’t bring along a first folio of Shakespeare—we have to have at least one printed book, right?—what’s the point of fleeing Earth in the first place?