Archives for category: Paper

Behold the Fonte d’Aretusa in Siracusa, Sicily, (which the guide books name the fountain of Arethusa, but which would be better rendered I think as Arethusa’s spring). Along with a few ducks, the Fonte sports in its middle a little grove of papyrus. This spring was the source of the fresh water which convinced the earliest Greek settlers in Sicily to stay here. Apparently these credulous immigrants believed the spring to be connected to the Greek homeland by an underground river which had been created by the nymph Arethusa’s flight from the unwelcome attentions of Alpheus, whom she finally managed to escape (or not) by dodging underwater and underground in Arcadia, finally surfacing in Ortygia, the island which was the center of ancient Syracuse.

“Syrakousai, queen of Greater Greece, was the largest, the most prosperous, and reputedly the most beautiful of all the Greek colonies in the West. Proudly independent in a hellenistic age which had seen the subjugation of most city-states, it had asserted its supremacy over Athens long since. In the third century BC it had upheld its profitable role astride the overlapping spheres of Rome and Carthage. It was the last major representative of unconquered Greek civilization.” (Norman Davies: Europe: A History.) Archimedes, the world’s most famous bath-taker, was born (and died) there, as did Damocles, he of the hanging sword, if indeed he was more than a fiction.

There is a Papyrus Museum in Syracuse, and the biggest colony of papyrus plants in Europe grows along the banks of the Ciane river to the south and west of the city. These plants, some say, were originally a gift from Ptolemy to the tyrant Heiron; others maintain they were planted in the 18th century. Papyrus is however still being made in the city:

Percy Bysshe Shelley gives us a somewhat geographically confusing account of Arethusa’s eventual encounter and union with “Alpheus bold/On his glacier cold” —

    Arethusa arose
    From her couch of snows
In the Acroceraunian mountains, —
    From cloud and from crag,
    With many a jag,
Shepherding her bright fountains.
    She leapt down the rocks,
    With her rainbow locks
Streaming among the streams; —
    Her steps paved with green
    The downward ravine
Which slopes to the western gleams;
    And gliding and springing
    She went ever singing,
In murmurs as soft as sleep;
    The earth seemed to love her,
    And heaven smiled above her,
As she lingered towards the deep.

[There are three more verses, none of which gets much better than this, before we get to the mixed up conclusion:]

    And now from their fountains
    In Enna's mountains,
Down one vale where the morning basks,
    Like friends once parted
    Grown single hearted,
They [Arethusa and Alpheus] ply their watery tasks.
    At sunrise they leap
    From their cradles steep
In the cave of the shelving hill;
    At noontide the flow
    Through the woods below
And the meadows of asphodel;
    And at night they sleep 
    In the rocking deep
Beneath the Ortygian shore; —
    Like spirits that lie
    In the azure sky
When they love but live no more.

I think it’s quite encouraging that even “great” poets can churn out stuff like this. It is actually ninety miles from Syracuse to Enna (the site of the entrance to Hades) — but I suppose that’s nothing to beings who can travel from Greece to Italy via underground waterway.

I dare say a mathematician would respond, “Of course. That’s what happens with this formula”. Still this tweet from World & Science is quite neat: certainly better than the more usual, and boring, picture which accompanied my earlier post Paper sizes.

From Nate Hoffelder’s weekly email of links comes this piece from the Internet Archives Blog reminding us that Digital Books Wear out Faster than Physical Books.

We used to hear a lot about how computer advances would, with the passage of time, render inaccessible lots of things we then relied upon. Changes in computer languages, software, conventions, whatever would inevitably make reading that antique floppy disk impossible. I imagine it’s hard to read old Wang files today. We don’t hear as much about this any more. Maybe this is because we’ve taken the warning on board, hired IT departments, and constantly refresh the archive, or maybe (same thing in a way) we just assume it’s someone else’s problem, and we’ll be kept all right: after all don’t our computer companies keep on sending us directions to upgrade to their new operating system? Of course “being all right” tends, in this world, to mean paying some more money to upgrade your software so that it can still decipher those hieroglyphic files. This is just another reminder of how far from true ownership your relationship with your ebook library really is. (Though if you can read it and enjoy it, what difference does ownership really make?)

Even though in The Foundation series, millennia in the future, they buzzed around reading ebooks, they nevertheless had a vast central library. What was kept therein? Printed books do make for a pretty solid archive. You just put them away, and a couple of centuries later there they are waiting for you to take them off the shelf again. Of course, paper will eventually disintegrate — modern archival papers are claimed to be good for 1,000 years, though nobody’s been around long enough to test this claim — and one can easily argue that a water-tight update protocol could make digital files more survivable than paper ones. Still, who’s going to commit our descendants to a regular re-running of every ebook file in the world? Or in the complementary scenario, to printing a new POD copy every 1,000 years? And who’s going to pay for it? Not our problem! — Let’s just hope they still care about what we’ve put in the archive.

Printing Impressions reports “The equilibrium between paper demand and supply within the printing industry continues to remain out of balance in North America, with no end in sight. Much of that has been driven by outright mill closures, numerous paper machine shutdowns, and the repurposing of existing mills to produce packaging, board stocks, and other high-value products instead of lower-margin printing grades.”

This much, I think, we all knew. It comes as a surprise therefore that this is the lead-in to a story about the closure of a Canadian paper mill. Who knows what’s going on? We do have to remember that there’s paper and then there’s paper. This mill however, on Vancouver Island in western Canada actually makes packaging grades, the very grades we had thought were in high demand, causing shortages in printing papers. However it does seem that their main market is in China. “Paper markets in China served by the mill have significantly weakened while there have been substantial cost escalations for chemicals, energy, and wood fibre used. . . The intersection of these pressures has materially impacted the financial viability of the paper operation.”

I’m sure they don’t need me to suggest that selling their product on this side of the ocean might have been an option. Shutting down a line is an expensive operation, and dealing with 150 redundancies and the severe blow that’ll have on your local economy is not something you casually drift into. They must have no practical alternatives.

Paper is sold by weight. In the days when most of our printing was done sheetfed, you had to be able to get to a number of pounds from the required number of sheets. This you could calculate in two steps: firstly by working out the number of sheets needed for each copy — if it’s printing 32 to view, i.e. 64 pages per sheet, your 256-page book will require 4 sheets per copy. Multiply that by the number of copies you plan to print, and add a spoilage allowance, which, if you didn’t already know it from experience, was something the printer could be coaxed into giving you, but would always be a “best guess”. With these numbers — Bob’s your uncle — a number of sheets. How much does each sheet weight though? This information is contained in the basis weight designation for the paper: if it’s 50# basis that means that a ream of this paper, if your sheet were to measure 25″ x 38″, would weigh 50 pounds. But of course your book is almost certainly not going to print on a sheet as small as 25″ x 38″ — this is just the standard sheet size used when we talk about book paper basis weight. These sorts of quaint old-fashioned things are there because they were first thought of eons ago. Who talks about reams now? But because it all works nobody’s changed it. (Metrication in Europe has greatly simplified this sort of thing.) So

M weight = Length of sheet x Width of sheet x Basis weight ÷ 950/2.

The number 950 is the product of 25 x 38 (the standard sheet size area). You’re calculating the area of the sheet you need to buy and dividing it by the area of the standard sheet which links you to weight. The 2 comes in because a ream is half of a thousand — 500 sheets. The answer to this equation, the weight of a thousand (M) sheets, is then multiplied by the number of thousands of sheets you need: and now you have it in pounds.

My copy of the Library of America edition of Henry James: Novels 1903-1911 is printed cross-grain. It’s the second printing, and I bet the first printing (like all their other books) is printed right-grain. You can see the effect of this “error” in the cockling of the pages. The book resists being opened, and when it is, it protests by wrinkling its spine.

The book just doesn’t want to open properly, all the way, so that you cannot, as you should be able to, balance it in one hand with the pages fully open. A cross-grained book’ll want to mouse-trap — to flip shut if you don’t break the spine thus forcing it to stay open, though this tends to be more visible in a paperback book on a heavier stock. Not only is the cross-grainedness of the volume shown in these strange opening contortions, but the book as a whole just doesn’t want to shut properly. Thus although the cross-grained book resists opening fully, it also refuses to shut fully.

It is indeed a tortured volume.

So why is it cross-grained, and what does cross-grained mean? In an ideal book universe the grain of the paper will lie parallel to the spine. In a cross-grained book it is at right angles to the spine. The grain of the paper, the direction in which the fibers in the paper are aligned, is easily established if you dare. Just take a page and tear it. Paper will tear in a straight line when you tear in the direction of the grain, whereas your tear will wander all around when you do it the other way, against the grain.*

This tear test isn’t any kind of magic. In a Fourdrinier paper machine the very watery pulp is poured onto a moving wire-mesh belt; the movement of the belt causes the fibers in the slurry to align themselves with least resistance to the motion, i.e. in the direction of travel. Thus the fibers in a roll or sheet of paper will (almost all) lie pointing in one direction. For the same reason as tearing across the grain is harder, so too is folding across the grain. The only fold which remains after the book has been bound and trimmed is the spine fold, and it’s here you’ll detect trouble with grain direction. (In extreme cases you’ll also see a cockle in the forage of the book, a waviness of the pages which you can see when the book is just lying there.)

So why would Library of America have allowed their book to be printed cross-grain? Maybe on their reprint, their quantity being lower, they sought to save a little by using up an oddment — or maybe the printer decided to do that on the qt. In the latter case the publisher may well have screamed when they discovered the problem, and have ended up accepting the run along with a bit of a discount.

When you buy paper in sheets you have to remember to specify long-grain or short-grain, in other words, to indicate whether the grain should be parallel to the length or the breadth of the sheet. With rolls of paper this isn’t a consideration: the grain will always be parallel to the direction of the roll, never across it. Adjustments to the imposition and to the roll width are what’ll be used on a web press to ensure your book is printed right-grain.


* The same phenomenon will be known to any woodworker. Sawing across the grain of a board is much harder work than ripping it along the grain direction.

More than seven million people make their living in the North American paper, printing and mailing industries, so all the talk we’ve heard for the last fifty years about the paperless office might impact the livelihoods of quite a lot of people if anyone ever acted on it.

Printing Impressions brings us a story about Two Sides North America, an industry organization dedicated to countering the plausible-looking but baselesss claims describable as greenwashing — “disinformation disseminated by an organization to present an environmentally responsible public image”. Two Sides’ mission is “to dispel common environmental misconceptions and to inspire and inform businesses and consumers with engaging, factual information about the sustainability, versatility  and attractiveness of print, paper and  paper-based packaging.” (Even the goodies can be described as lobbying organizations.) They say they have persuaded 880 companies to withdraw “Go paperless — Go green” claims. If my mailbox is anything to go by the volume of printed advertising has kept on growing, and looks set to continue to keep the presses rolling.

It looks like a no-brainer to claim that paper is more environmentally damaging than computer storage, but over the years we have managed to think about the environmental costs of electronics manufacturing and of electricity generation itself. Paper making has cleaned up its act and the industry plants more trees than it cuts, but obviously as we move inexorably away from coal-generation of electricity the balance will change. At the end of the day the basic difficulty with the paperless office is that people just haven’t wanted it. Seems to me we’ll all be more at ease with abandoning our physical filing systems now that we’ve been spending more and more time working from home. Does this mean that the office, when we get back to it, will be paperless? Certainly, I bet, less papery. Sorry TSNA.

Less book paper is being made — capacity reduction in free sheet, represents mainly capacity gain in packaging grades which are easier to make and thus more profitable. (Yet, chaotically, printers have difficulty sourcing cartons too.)

But even if, paper having been made, you can find it and buy it, it’s still hard to find a truck to get it where you might use it. “Last date for change” used to be a consideration: it really no longer really exists — the last date on which you can now change your quantity is the day you place your order, or even before, because you’re probably ordering what your supplier has told you you can have.

These graphics come from the recent New York Book Forum discussion “The Paper Pause”. Matt Baehr of BMI moderates a panel of Dirk Hiler from Lakeside Book, Meg Reid from Hub City Press, Jane Searle from W. W. Norton, and PRH paper buyer David Hammond.

If you don’t see a video here, please click of the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. The video takes a while to get going so you may want to drag along a couple of minutes to miss out of the generic “music” which fills the start.

I’m always a believer in the market’s ability to self correct. If there’s a shortage of x, the price of x will rise till such time as businesses that can provide x will flood the market in order to capture the surplus profit swilling about. That’s no doubt how it works, but it takes years to change direction for a business as capital intensive as paper making. Adding capacity takes time (and money) — as the Mr Baehr tells us “To greenfield a new paper millI today would take five years and $2 billion” so even if someone thought that the book paper market was worth going after, it wouldn’t help for a while. Doubtless truckers will rally to the flag before that as wages rise and the need to get out of the house becomes salient — the American Trucking Association’s chart just seems to me a far from disinterested forecast. But of course prices will rise.

Maybe we will have to be content with a world in which there is only one or two different book papers. A large publishing house today may use a thousand different papers: different shades, different finishes, different ppi counts, different roll sizes and so on. Rationalization and standardization is a-coming: I’ve expatiated before on the silliness of insisting of trim size variations of ⅛” here and ⅛” there. The supply chain will enforce such self-discipline.

And of course it’s not just books. Here is Printing Impressions showing us that the same difficulties face commercial printers where price increases tell the story. In another piece they point out a classic antidote to supply problems: pay your bills on time. How many publishers have failed to pull that arrow out of the quiver? Nobody want to discuss it, but you know that for years publishers who payed their bills late always had difficulty getting decent schedules: why not go further and offer earlier payment as an incentive for better schedules?

Freightwaves assures us that supply chains are never going to return to normal. (Link via Technology • Innovation • Publishing.) Well of course they are right — yesterday’s normal can never be tomorrow’s too; change is constant and unavoidable. They do allow however that with all the labor and logistics problems automation will ultimately ride to the rescue. Can we expect to see goods being whisked along conveyor belts running beside our rail and highways?

Immediately after I had posted about Paper’s take-off here comes news from Patently Apple (via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing) that Apple has been awarded a patent for a virtual paper. Does this mean ordinary paper’s in for a crash landing?

Not really, though who knows what’ll happen next. The story suggests that the end customer is unlikely to be interacting with virtual paper any time soon — it’ll be something developers use. I can’t begin understand all this, but as Figs. 4C and 4D from the Patent application seem to show, a 3-D image will somehow stand out from the surface of the foldable sheet. They somewhat disingenuously suggest “The patent then goes 10 miles deep into the lighting, rasterized images, spheres, pixel depths that could lose the average reader.” Hey guys, you lost me at about six inches down!

For other non-paper paper see Stone paper.

“In 1391, 2.3 million sheets of paper arrived at the port of London: a page for every person in England. Most of it was probably low-quality brown paper used as a packing material to protect foodstuffs and ceramics as they juddered along cartways into the city. A small amount, some 3,500 sheets, was the ornamental paper used for decorations at feasts and known as papiri depicti (Chaucer refers to elaborate ‘bake-metes and dish-metes . . . peynted and castelled with papir’ in ‘The Parson’s Tale’). The rest – hundreds of thousands of sheets – was writing paper.”

Tom Johnson, in his London Review of Books review of Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fictions by Orietta Da Rold (Cambridge University Press, 2020), continues “Only a hundred years earlier, paper was hardly known in England”. (Link via LitHub.) The point here (well, my point anyway) is that demand for paper skyrocketed long before printing à la Gutenberg got going in the 1450s. One might almost suggest that the revolution in printing was a response to the demand for paper and all the things you could do with paper, rather than the opposite. The other point is that in medieval Britain nobody much saw the need for paper: they had parchment.

Paper had been invented in the second century BCE in China, and by the fourth century CE its use there was widespread. Paul M. Dover informs us in his fascinating The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe (CUP, 2021) “During the late sixth century the civil service of the Sui Dynasty provided one emperor with 300,000 paper copies of an edict condemning an imperial rival”. This far eastern origin was known in Europe when paper arrived there: what was glossed over when it arrived in the West was the fact that it came via the Islamic world where it had importantly been adapted to use rags as its raw material. After the 1258 sack of Baghdad by the Mongols paper making in the Middle East largely shut down, and they began importing paper from Italy. Spain was another early source of European paper. When Toledo was “liberated” by the Christians in 1085 they found a paper mill working away there.

Although parchment held the field in Europe, it was expensive, and this tended to militate against any kind of casual use. In 1471 the Innsbruck imperial court bought 86 sheets of paper for the same price as a single sheet of parchment, and as time went by the price differential got worse. Expensive stuff: fine for the laws of the country — Britain’s parliament only decided to stop writing its laws on parchment in 2016 — but lousy for shopping lists, letters, aide memoires or any other less formal usage. Parchment has also the advantage/disadvantage that it’s easy to scrape off a typo and write in a new word. Ink gets absorbed into the fibers of paper, and thus becomes a more reliable witness to the original condition of things. For legal, financial, business and government documents this was by no means a disadvantage.

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ushered in a frenzy of note taking, and partly because there was finally something on which you could write a note without sacrificing a lamb. Much of the initiative came from bankers and merchants, who realized that as their business grew so did their personal memory become less and less adequate for the facts they needed to retain. Writing notes, once paper became available, could become an obsession. Herman Weinsberg (1518-97), a Cologne lawyer, became a sort of life blogger avant la lettre: his Gedenkbuch in three volumes was a sort attempt to record everything that happened to him and his family. “In less than eight months, Weinsberg filled more than 700 folio pages with anecdotes from his earlier years; he described his own habit of daily writing as like being a fish in water”. People wrote letters, made memoranda, wrote diaries, drew up accounts, listed topics to be dealt with that day, and did all the sorts of things you can imagine doing with paper yourself. The Chinese had even had toilet paper for at least half a millennium by then.

Parchment’s demise may in the end have been hastened by the development of printing: the inks required to adhere to metal types were less successful in adhering to parchment than they were with paper — and of course paper by then was so much cheaper.