Ali Pechman at Poetry Magazine:
For thousands of years writing surfaces such as papyrus, animal skins, and stone had been alternately celebrated and eschewed for the advancements they provided to memory, but none had been as utilitarian as paper. Basbanes, “a self-confessed bibliophile,” gives a number of dates for paper’s first appearance: fragments have been found from as far back as 150 A.D. in China, although the first identifiable printed book appeared there in 868 A.D. Use quickly spread from China to the Middle East and eventually to medieval Europe, where paper mills proliferated. Usefulness, Basbanes argues, is paper’s defining merit: in 20,000 different iterations, it can be handled and physically present in the face of an increasingly abstract world. Basbanes quotes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;And as imagination bodies forthThe forms of things unknown, the poet’s penTurns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothingA local habitation and a name.
Even in its most poetic forms, paper’s role in our world is a way to put “airy nothings” onto solid objects.
Sansom, on the other hand, describes paper not just as a useful thing but an inherent part of us. “In Japanese there’s a phrase, yokogami-yaburi, which means to tear paper sideways against its grain—idiomatically, it means ‘perversity’ or ‘pig-headedness.’ By ignoring paper, we are perverse; we go against the grain.”