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Wednesday, 6 November 2013

On Paper By Nicholas A. Basbanes

The author, right, with Jackie, left

Our birth in the world is heralded officially by a small document proclaiming the date, our weight, sex, and parentage. Our death is on notice to the same world by a certificate which states date, more names, and sex. Each milestone in our lives, the graduations, marriages, divorces, driver’s licenses are decreed on other pieces we can hold, show, and offer as proof of our time on earth. Records may also be kept in vast caverns of data banks, but it is those which we can hold in our hands, which we store in our cabinets, and hold close to our hearts that trumpet our own special indenture, our enduring allegiance to paper.
Nicholas A. Basbanes, an investigative reporter, respected book critic, and renowned author of eight previous books on literary matters has decided to put a face on the pages of time, the immutable tablet of scribes, artists, and bean counters of our current and past civilizations.

On Paper, Basbanes 375-, yes, page opus is subtitled The Everything of its Two-Thousand- Year History for good reason.  It’s not by happenstance that everything is italicized. OK, maybe not everything. I wasn't able to find any references to ransom or suicide notes.
      On Paper is exception to the subject matter of his Basbanes' works.
“All my books have been involved with book culture," Basbanes told me in a gentle scholarly voice reminiscent of a fondly remembered professor. "I’ve been writing all my life. When I graduated from college back in 1965 I had already worked professionally for two newspapers. Then I was a public affairs officer in the Navy. When I got out of the service, I became a reporter and seven years later a literary editor for the Worcester Sunday Telegram.”
We met in an 18th-century replica drawing room/lobby of a hotel near Franklin Hall in Old City (not far from its namesake's house location and site of his original printing press), where Basbanes was scheduled to lecture. He mused about the choices which got him to this subject, his ninth book.
“I can’t remember, ever, when I didn’t want to be a writer," Basbanes continued. "As a literary editor, I regarded the job as an extension of my liberal arts education. Since most of my books have involved most of the aspects of books and book culture, this book On Paper just seem liked the next logical step because I figured paper has been the stock and trade for the written word for over 600 years in the West and a lot longer than this in the Mideast and over 2,000 years in China and Japan. But almost  instantly this subject evolved into other things about paper. After finding out so much, it just took off and became (paper) a compelling history unto itself. There are eighteen chapters, but only four deal with book publishing.”
And what did Basbanes find out about paper?
“Well, for one thing, there are over 20,000 uses for it," he added, with a twinkle in his eye. "But don’t worry I didn’t include all 20,000.”
On Paper took ten years to complete. “This book took more time than any of my others. I just became so comfortable with the subject and for me it was starting into a brand new world.”
This new world was actually a trip that took back into his bygone years following up on investigative reporting assignments.
 “I followed the story. I decided I not only had to deal with the manufacturing of paper but the history of where it began, I traveled all over the world to research this story.'
From China, to Korea up to Japan, given to the Arabs by threat of the sword, through to Sicily to Italy, surveying the Iberian peninsula, onto France, and the rest of Europe, across the ocean to the Americas, paper rolled -- literally. Into the land of the Aztecs and Incas came literacy, chopping its way onto the backwoods and fields of the Algonquin and Powhatans loomed the printed press, cleanliness, art, firearms and Broadsides.
And thus created was a book inspired by a bibliophile, created by a journalist, and written by a master wordsmith. And sleuth.
 Broadsides offered information and opinions. When George III taxed newspapers, the American Revolution began in earnest. Then the new nation needed currency, and we are introduced to Zenas Crane, his mill, and American greenbacks. The book though isn’t a mere history of paper. It is a backbreaking investigating research into its passage through time and the currency of usage. On Paper sails through oceans of reams and guides us through the paper trails of identity documentations, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural plans, DaVinci’s notebooks, Beethoven’s manuscripts, and the Declaration of Independence.
In On Paper's  Epilogue the author relates to us how on the morning of September 11, 2001, he sat mesmerized at his TV. When 200-floor concrete and steel building crumbled, he was spellbound by the image of the carnage and “the paper rain." "These tattered sheets were the only artifacts of consequence to emerge from the Twin Towers in any recognizable form.”
Inspiration might fire a bolt from Heaven, but the author knew, staring into this hip-deep remnants of people’s lives, what would kindle his next book.