UnknownOn Paper by Nicholas Basbanes is a large, handsome book published by Knopf. Given their commitment to fine book making, exemplified by their informing readers about typefaces in a colophon (I guess maybe they’ve stopped doing this) it’s a little surprising that they don’t tell us what paper the book was printed on. I don’t think they did anything extra special though: it’s a perfectly nicely formed cream/natural sheet, probably 55#, bulking at about 384ppi. It gives the book a satisfying heft, and has been nicely printed.

I’m afraid I find Nicholas Basbanes’ writing utterly soporific. By all rights I should love what he does — he writes about stuff I am fascinated by — but I seem unable to finish any of his books. The subtitle of the book may hint at my problem: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History by a Self-Confessed Bibliophiliac. The bit about the Bibliophiliac is actually not really part of the subtitle: it’s more a catch-line on the jacket. But that’s the bit that gets me I suspect. It’s just overdoing it. You’ve got a perfectly good story here: don’t gussy it up with fancy writing. Having managed to struggle on to about two-thirds of the way through, I can’t really remember anything I’ve learned from his book, though it is true that the account of visiting hand papermakers in China with which the book starts does go pretty well.

Meanwhile I get, via Publishing Cambridge, this THES review of Lothar Müller’s White Magic, (Polity Press). It sounds from the review  a more lively book, but of course the review of On Paper in The TLS is what made me want to read that book in the first place. White Magic seems an altogether livelier account: one can get a pretty good flavor at Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.

When life was slower and less efficiency-driven we used to spend time thinking about which paper was most appropriate for this or that book. The rule at the University Printing House in Cambridge was that mathematics would always be printed on a smooth white sheet. The less scientific you got the yellower the paper could be. Belles lettres (does such a category really exist or is it just a handy label for those lightly literary books published for the carriage trade?) might get a cream laid paper, with, if you wanted to go really wild, a watermark. We tended to want to put an entire series on the same paper: thus all the volumes of The Letters of D. H. Lawrence would be printed on the same Mohawk sheet. The trouble with this is that such series take years to complete, and in the meantime mills rationalize their lines or even go out of business without regard to whether you have finished your series or not. Some university presses have inventoried large quantities of paper and book cloth for this reason: with often tragic results. After a few years knocking about in a warehouse your stock will by looking slightly different, and will certainly be less than you started out with. Damage, decay and loss are endemic, though leaking roofs are rarer. Now that our industry is so driven by profit targets and ever greater efficiencies, the idea of buying paper for an individual book is incredible. Now we use a couple of standard sheets and sizes, and shoehorn our books into the mould.

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