Nicholas A. Basbanes Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Nicholas A. Basbanes

Nicholas A. Basbanes

An interview with Nicholas A. Basbanes

Nick Basbanes discusses the inspiration, research and passion for his book, On Paper.

What inspired you to write On Paper?

After writing eight books about every conceivable aspect of books and book culture, it seemed logical that I turn to the stuff of transmission itself, and for more than five hundred years in the West – and much longer than that in Asia and the Middle East – the medium of choice has been paper. The actual idea to write a book about paper, though, was suggested to me in 2002 by MacArthur Fellow Timothy Barrett , during a speaking visit I made to the Iowa Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. I spent several days there with Tim – a world-renowned authority in the fi eld of hand papermaking – and he regaled me with stories about its history that I found irresistible.

The best part about it, from my standpoint, was that no book quite like the decidedly eclectic one I ultimately envisioned had ever been done before. This is not a formal chronology by any means, but a cultural history that takes in the full sweep of this remarkably versatile material, and discusses the impact it has had on the shaping of history.

Can you talk a bit about your research? Did you know when you began the project what an adventure it would take you on - from southwest China and Japan to such places as a pulping mill at the National Security Agency and a Kimberly-Clark mill where a million boxes of Kleenex are made every day?

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write a book that would truly "cover the waterfront," as the old Billie Holiday song goes, where paper used for books and for writing would be just one part of a much larger story. I wanted On Paper to stand as something of a bookend to my first book, A Gentle Madness, doing forpaper what that book did for bibliomania. I am a firm believer in narrative and the power of story-telling, which for me means going to the source for my material whenever possible, wherever the source may be.

The China trip was especially interesting, three weeks in Yunnan Province along the old Burma Road and in the bamboo forests of Sichuan Province, seeking out villages where paper is still made today by hand in much the same way it was when it was invented there two thousand years ago. I traveled to Japan for the specific purpose of meeting with a Living National Treasure papermaker, and while I was there I paid my respects at a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Goddess of Papermaking. I really live, as a writer, for the personal interview, and I was fortunate to make contact with a striking variety of fascinating people. For a lengthy segment on Leonardo da Vinci, I talked at length with Martin Kemp, the Oxford University scholar who has spent more time with Leonardo's remarkable notebooks than any person alive.

For a chapter on bureaucratic paperwork – what we all know as red tape – I spent a morning with David Ferriero, the National Archivist of the United States, and custodian of 80 billion pieces of paper. Two days at the Crane Paper Company, the dean of American papermakers, were highlighted by an interview with Douglas Crane, the seventh generation of his family to work actively in the business, and the person in charge of making all the paper for American currency.

I was keenly interested in the whole concept of recycling, which meant a trip to a mill in New Jersey where up to a million rolls of toilet paper a day are made from recycled Manhatt an offi ce paper. I can't tell you what a thrill it was to hold in my hands letters written by John Adams to his wife Abigail, and she to him, or to touch a First Folio of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library. That sort of experience never gets old.

Can you explain why you chose to open your book by recounting the three-week research trip to southwestern China?

The beauty of paper is that we know with some degree of certainty when it was invented, where it was invented, and who invented it. Indeed, the Chinese regard paper as one of their four outstanding inventions of antiquity, giving it top billing with gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and printing. They even have a traditional date for its formal presentation at court, 105 A.D., and credit an offi cial in the Imperial Court named Cai Lun with introducing the process. Recent scholarship strongly suggests, however, that the formula was developed over several hundred years prior to that, with the earliest verifi able examples dating from about 140 B.C. Paper was considered an immediate success, and for five hundred years the secret to making it remained a closely guarded proprietary craft.

Can anyone date the first appearance of an actual book?

By "actual book," I assume you mean a "book on paper," in which case the earliest known printed book to have an actual date on it is The Diamond Sutra, from 868 A.D., printed on paper from carved wooden blocks, and produced more than five hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg introduced moveable metal type in Europe. It was found in a cave in the Gobi Desert early in the twentieth century by the explorer Sir Aurel Stein, and is now in the British Library.

But books have taken many shapes and forms over the centuries, the earliest ones written on clay tablets in Mesopotamia dating to about 3000 B.C. Others have been writt en on cured animal skins known as parchment and vellum, on laminated strips of a marsh reed known as papyrus, others have been incised on bamboo, silk, metal sheets, pott ery, stone – whatever material was available at the time. But once introduced as a viable medium – and once the rudiments for making it from the pulverized fibers of a vegetative source were understood – paper transformed everything. It was cheap to make, it was light, pliable, resilient, portable, foldable – truly a miracle invention with a multitude of applications.

This is a big question, I know, but what do you think have been paper's greatest contributions to history?

I think the fact that paper has been the medium upon which so much of our history, our literature, and our cultural heritage has been recorded for close to a thousand years, and the medium upon which each generation over that span has been able to communicate with those that follow, has to come first. Another would be the role paper has played as a tool of the creative process, with generous att ention given to the notebooks of Leonard da Vinci, Beethoven, and Thomas Edison.

But paper has done so many other remarkable things, it is almost impossible to single out one function as being stronger than all the others. Architecture as we know it today, for instance, or engineering in which plans must be drawn precisely to scale, the making of photographic images, the emergence in Ott oman times of the modern bureaucracy, are unthinkable without the availability of this remarkable material.

You write about the Iran hostage crisis, an event that was recently featured in the Oscar-winning film Argo. What do you find fascinating about this incident in relation to paper, and what does it say about the role paper has played in major political incidents throughout history?

Part of my original plan for this book was to have a chapter discussing documents as a form of identity verification, the working premise being that more often than not we are who and what our papers say we are. To that end, I thought it would be worthwhile to examine the roll documents play in the world of intelligence. A couple of people I know who have been active in that world put me in touch with Antonio "Tony" Mendez, who is legendary in the intelligence community for his work as a master of disguise, in particular his master-minding of the CIA operation code-named "Argo," which became the basis of the film. What Mendez outlined in detail for me was how so much of that operation depended on the preparation of persuasive identity documents, film scripts, and other supporting materials known in the spy business as "pocket litter" in order to succeed.

In addition to the "Argo" operation, he discussed other projects he has worked on which required his distinctive skills, as he put it, as a "master forger." One of the fun parts of this book was to determine exactly how paper has figured into so many major historical events and incidents; the Stamp Act of 1765, to cite one compelling example, was all about taxing the many ways that paper had become essential to the conducting of daily life in Colonial America. The Nuremberg War Crimes trials were prosecuted almost entirely on the strength of damning documents, and not on the testimony of witnesses. The Pentagon Papers and the roll they played in what later became known as the Watergate Scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon is yet another instance.

Why did you decide to include a discussion of origami in the book?

I had heard early in my research about Michael LaFosse, a master origami artist whose work is in museums all over the world, who makes his own paper by hand. So that interested me in and of itself. Once I profiled him, it made sense to also include the California laser physicist Robert Lang and the MIT professor Erik Demaine, both pioneers in "computational origami." What I like most about origami conceptually is that many millions of people enjoy doing it, from children in kindergarten all the way up to brilliant scientists like Lang and Demaine.

It's sort of like book collecting in that respect – people can participate at any level of sophistication, from books found at fl ea markets for pennies, all the way up to Shakespeare First Folios that go for millions of dollars. What is especially appealing about origami is that everyone has to play by the same rules – one sheet of paper, no scissors, no glue, no string, just folding, and lots of imagination. It's one of the recreational aspects of paper that I thought deserved a place in my book.

How did you decide to include the event of September 11, 2001 in your discussion about paper?

As I watched the events of that frightful day unfold, I was struck by the surreal sight of all that paper spouting so copiously out of the Twin Towers into the blue morning sky as they crumbled to the ground. Later, when it became evident that some of the only artifacts of any significance to survive the terrorist att acks were going to be paper documents of every conceivable description, I felt it would make for an especially powerful way to conclude the book. I decided to write about it in a manner that would proceed from the most commonplace specimens up to and including some of the most profound.

One item I learned about was the frayed business card of a construction inspector for the Port Authority that had been found on a windowsill in Brooklyn, and it turned out that this man had been responsible for saving the lives of more than fifty people before time ran out for him and those who were still left behind. Another was a single piece of common bond paper that had been picked up on the street outside the South Tower minutes before that building collapsed, a poignant plea for help from someone on the eighty-fourth floor that was unsigned, but was not without clues as to its authorship.

I regard telling that story as sensitively as I possibly could to be by far the most challenging aspect of the chapter for me, since it spoke, in an uncommonly eloquent way, for all of the victims of that horrible day.

You write that "the paperless society we hear being bandied about so much today may not be as imminent as some people suggest." How so?

There's a wonderful quote I use as an epigraph to one of the chapters, an observation made in the 1980s by a historian of libraries named Jesse Shera. "The paperless society," he said, "is about as probable as the paperless bathroom." Many functions of paper definitely are on the wane, and we all know what they are, books, newspapers, correspondence, record-keeping and the like. But those account for just a fraction of the functions that paper facilitates, currency, toilet paper, photographic prints, wrapping paper, cardboard packaging, labels, food containers – it's all paper – and I don't see many substitutes for those products immediately on the horizon.

What role do you see paper playing in the future?

There's a company based in Pennsylvania, P. H. Glatfelter, that has more than tripled its business in barely a decade, and is now a $1.6 billion-a-year company, and they did it by diversifying to the point that they make paper for more than a thousand different commercial uses – paper for tea bags, postage stamps, greeting cards, candy wrappers, copying machines, while also supplying high-quality paper for use in the publishing industry.

The companies that are going to survive and prosper, I believe, are the companies that have the will and the perception to seek out and serve a variety of niche markets such as these.

The smart phone has become our generation's diary, newspaper, novel, notepad, planner and so much more. What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks to this transition?

I think future generations may regret the absence of hard-copy diaries, journals, correspondence and the like from people living an exclusively electronic kind of life. These are artifacts that give us so much information about the way people think and how they live at a particular point in time, and to eliminate them as a resource for future scholars is a palpable loss. Think of what we would have missed if John and Abigail Adams had texted each other digitally during the years of the Revolution, and not writt en the kind of lett ers that truly span the centuries, or if their son, John Quincy Adams, had not kept a daily diary from the time he was twelve to a few days before he died in 1848 at the age of eighty. I write in my chapter on governmental red tape how the National Archives is working to develop reliable ways to insure that electronic records are stored in ways that they will be preserved permanently in standard formats, and "readable" to future researchers. In fact that's the biggest challenge professional archivists face today, the long-term conservation of "born digital" materials.

As more and more people go fully digital, is it important to still "keep a hard copy"?

I know, certainly, that the National Archives in Washington still makes hard copies of many important documents, and that the hard copy in those instances becomes the archival copy. I know, too, that after the ballot fiasco in Florida in the presidential election of 2000, many states turned to a paperless touch-screen format, only to discover that there was no concrete record of how people voted, and that it was vulnerable to fraud. Now they are using what are known as optical scanning devices that tabulate votes electronically, but keep a hard paper copy as a safeguard against tampering.

What did you discover in your research that most surprised you?

I was surprised most by just how versatile a material paper is, and how ubiquitous it is in our daily lives. The people at the Glatfelter company I mentioned earlier say that the average American handles, on average, about thirty diff erent objects every day that have been made with their paper – envelopes you get in the mail, stamps you affix to a lett er, the label on a beer bott le, a Hallmark greeting card, a deck of playing cards, etc. – and they are by no means even close to being the largest papermaking company based in the United States. International Paper's net sales last year alone were $27.8 billion, an increase of $1.8 billion from the previous year.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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