9780393239614_198Mark Kurlansky’s book Paper: Paging through history (W. W. Norton, $27.95) is the sort of book I should love. I’m interested in the subject; it’s a good-looking bit of production; I know a little about paper and should be a sucker for dollops of recondite information about the subject. So why did I find it so hard to read?

This is a busy book in which we learn a little bit about a lot of things. The author tells us too much about a few things and too little about too many. — Scouring around for topics to write about? Here’s one: hanji.* OK, two paragraphs’ll do — now off to China. In a book about paper where the uses for paper other than as “communication paper” get virtually no mention (though to be fair, some such uses do occasionally get mentioned and then mentioned again, just rarely discussed in any depth) we should not perhaps be surprised that something as omnipresent as the toilet roll only gets a single glancing reference. Well one’s better than none, which is what many uses of paper get. We do get several separate references to the paper required for bullets, but we are never told what distinguishes this paper from say, tissue paper (which isn’t mentioned at all) and what characteristics it requires. I suppose origami is relevant in a work about paper: but relevant enough to get more attention that the difference between coated and uncoated papers, or wood-free as against groundwood (which I can’t remember ever being directly referenced here)? Marbled paper is dealt with as if it were a distinct form of paper: surely it’s not — it’s a method of printing on paper, which, surprise surprise, is actually paper. I did learn that those leather-look labels on jeans are in fact made of paper! The irresistible diversion is rarely resisted: we are told much more about the origins of the French national anthem than we are to learn about calender rolls. I have to concede that the mechanics of making paper by hand gets a decent amount of attention, if only cumulatively, here and there.

Now this bittiness may actually be intentional. The trick of following an apparently unimportant item wherever it takes you does of course constitute Mr Kurlansky’s schtick. He did it with Cod, which I remember enjoying, and with Salt. Trouble is, paper is a bit more unfocussed than these basic items. Cellulose might have been a better title for Mr Kurlansky’s bent, except that nobody would have bought such a book. Or Wood. He should probably write about fairly straightforward things with an interesting variety of uses, rather than a complex product, available in a dizzying variety of forms, with correspondingly myriad uses. His tour d’horizon technique breaks down here: he starts his survey historically and then slides into a sort of regional tour of the world.

The main cleverness in quoting Eden Phillpotts’ novel Storm in a Teacup may reside in actually having located a novel about paper making. Surely one could come up with references to labor issues in the paper industry as it transitioned from a hand craft to a machine industry which were not fictional.

There is a book to be written here. Take time to make it clear, with step-by-step description and diagrams and pictures how paper is made and what it’s made of. Then take a variety of products and tell us something meaningful about them. I bet there’s a story, more interesting that Mr Kurlansky’s single mention, behind wallpaper. We could be told more about cartridge paper — I mean paper used in cartridges, not the smooth opaque sheet of paper made in Britain (which isn’t mentioned here at all). Paper in building might be nice to know about. The humble paper bag probably has more to it than meets the eye. The one I’m looking at now, a plain white bag which holds a loaf from our local supermarket, tells me it was made by Novolex in Florence, Kentucky. Why? They have a plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Is there a story here? If so, Mr Kurlansky doesn’t tell it. Certainly paper as used by artists could be an interesting chapter — here it’s dealt with piecemeal, now here, now a few chapters on, and then again near the end of the book.

However one should not review the book the author didn’t write: this is the one he did come up with. Maybe I care too much about the subject. When you notice small errors of fact about something you know, you inevitably begin to suspect error lurking behind every statement. But that’s not even the main problem I had: the book needs to be thoroughly shaken into focus. It has lots of good little bits spread about. It’s organization and editing that are desperately needed. The book has the feel of a suggestion leaped upon by a writer flailing about for an idea for his next project. But Mr Kurlansky has already written 28 books: surely ideas are not what he’s lacking. Sad to say, the book gives the impression it was written as a pile of good ideas each drafted separately on a bunch of 4″ x 6″ index cards which were then dropped on the floor and reassembled in slightly random order. I found it hard to read, and was disappointed.

The publisher manages to get in on the pervasive imprecision, selectiveness and softness of focus in their colophon† — nice that they have one of course. Here they tell us “This book was printed on Sebago paper, an acid-free sheet manufactured by Glatfelter, a prominent American paper maker founded in 1864.” None of this is wrong: it’s just slightly misleadingly put together, and omits certain (to me anyway) important details. What basis weight was the paper, how many ppi, what shade? Sebago is actually a sheet supplied by Lindenmeryr Paper Company, a paper merchant. They do get it made in Spring Grove, but could make it elsewhere — I remember its being made for them in Maine at the S. D. Warren plant. Glatfelter could sell you a sheet which matches it closely, but they couldn’t sell you Sebago; only Lindenmeyr can do that. Not that important, I agree; but too trivial to get wrong surely.

Mark Kurlansky will be addressing the April 11th meeting of The Book Industry Guild of New York.


* Literally “Korean paper. It’s made of the bark of the paper mulberry, or sometimes Broussonetia kazinoki — the same bark as is used for washi. The book is full of facts.

† I used this colophon as an illustration to my recent post on Dante, the typeface in which this book is set, so you can read it there.