cover image Paper: Paging Through History

Paper: Paging Through History

Mark Kurlansky. Norton, $27.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-393-23961-4

Kurlansky (Salt: A World History) yet again tackles world history via another object often taken for granted in modern society. In straightforward, no-nonsense prose, he traces the narrative of paper—and related inventions such as writing and the printing press—from antiquity to the 21st century. Throughout, Kurlansky operates from the premise that technological change is a symptom of societal change rather than its cause, using the invention of the printing press and developments in paper technology as examples. Unfortunately, having made such a strong claim about history and historical development, he does not adequately cultivate it as a working hypothesis. The book’s real highlights arrive at the end, when Kurlansky examines the contemporary paper industry, addressing environmental concerns and solutions being explored in response. He concludes by arguing not to fear new technology or the disappearance of paper. “This is evolution, not revolution,” he says, pointing out that such arguments against new inventions, including paper, have been around as long as humans. Despite what is both a fascinating topic, as proven by other titles on the history of paper, and a metaphysical experience (for readers of the print edition), Kurlansky’s dull writing style and haphazard employment of his technological thesis make this an unsatisfying work. (May)