Few of us give thought to paper’s impact on our lives. From printouts to books to household goods, paper has become an omnipresent yet nearly invisible part of life. But in his new book The Paper Trail, Alexander Monro explores the storied history of the humble piece of paper, illustrating how civilization has been pushed forward in remarkable ways by this simple, ancient invention.
Beginning in China almost 2,000 years ago, paper was a durable and cheap alternative to expensive shells and bamboo. Over the course of human history, paper made its way around the world, playing a pivotal role in history’s most significant cultural shifts. Providing widespread access to ideas and allowing easy communication, paper has been the bedrock of mankind’s culture, religious and political evolution.
But does paper have a future in today’s world? Here, Monro shares his thoughts on the material’s lasting impact and its important role in an increasingly digital society.
Paste: How did you decide to tell the story of paper?
Alexander Monro: Several years ago, I won an award to travel across Mongolia and Central Asia, following in the footsteps of the Mongols and Genghis Khan. [While writing about the trip,] I came across the story of paper. When the Mongols were unified under Genghis Khan, they didn’t have a script, so they didn’t have writing. When they conquered their way westwards across Asia, they discovered the usefulness of writing, so they asked these Uighur scribes in what is now northwest China to create a script for them. They wrote down their founding myths, the secret history of the Mongols, but also used it to administer what would become the biggest empire the world had ever seen. And so writing became enormously important for their own identity and their empire.
So I began to see the immense power that writing had, but it wasn’t writing on paper. That has enabled a far more comprehensive use of writing than would have been the case on other surfaces. I began to track back and follow the story of paper across China and back to its origins, and I became intrigued by how paper had remained marooned in east Asia for so long. Then I followed the story back the other direction, through central Asia to the Islamic Caliphate and into Europe as well. Suddenly, there was this extraordinary story right across Eurasia that dipped into different periods of history and difference civilizations, and yet it provided a unity where you could see certain themes in common.
Paste: What was the process of researching the history of paper? The book covers many subjects: religion, culture, politics. Can you tell me a bit about how you went about tackling that?
Monro: I started with China. I began with histories of ancient China and with histories of paper and papermaking in China. China has had writing for longer than any other civilization in the world and was using it long before paper was invented. So writing was already very important in China 3,000 years ago, and paper didn’t take off in China in a really big way until 1,700 or 1,800 years ago. They were using bamboo to write on, so immediately there was a need to distinguish what change paper had brought. What obvious change could you see in Chinese culture as a result of paper? They already had the Confucian classics, they already administered politics by writing.
The big shift that came was Buddhism. The arrival of Buddhism allied itself with paper, and did so enormously effectively. I think what happened was, whereas bamboo had been for the elite and politicians, Buddhism on paper had been aimed at all segments of society, including women, who usually were not given access to texts in China. Even the illiterate would buy little charms with Buddhist scripture. These things were much more affordable because they were on paper. It enabled a much more populist religion, a much more accessible form of knowledge, and it enabled that because it was a much cheaper surface.
Paste: The book is sprawling, but the biggest takeaway I had was that paper was one of the most pivotal inventions in history. What role has paper had in pushing culture, politics and civilization forward?
Monro: There are two arguments I make about the impact of paper. One is that paper enabled much more widespread access to knowledge and texts. Whereas politics and religion might only be read about by the elites, that began to change in the paper age. You saw that in religion, but you also saw that in the development of politics and news culture in Europe in the 16th and 17th century. People began to write and read about politics—not just those directly involved in the decisions, but people at a much more ordinary level of society. That was the first major impact that paper had. It helped to democratize knowledge and ideas, and inevitably, once knowledge, ideas and scripture are no longer exclusively owned by the elites, that tends to have enormous implications for how religion and politics are done. In that sense, paper was enormously liberating by blowing open areas of life that had been formerly very closed off. It didn’t do it on its own and there were all sorts of other reasons, but it was very integral to that process. It would never have been possible to have a Reformation if we’d been writing on calf skins. It would never have been possible to have that amazing influx of Buddhism if they’d been writing on bamboo.
The other is much more specific, and I particularly talk about it in Europe. As science and the arts develop in Europe prior to the paper age, people had trouble accessing one another’s works. If you’re making music in a cathedral community somewhere in Germany, it would be very unlikely you would be able to access to the music being made in England or in France. You’d have to travel or they would have to come to you, or you would have to spend an incredible amount of money to get a vellum manuscript. What happened with paper and printing is that it began to make music more affordable. It wasn’t dirt cheap, but for the people who were interested in writing it and learning about it, they could suddenly access each others work more easily and send their own work more easily. There was this cross fertilization of musical ideas and traditions across Europe that were feeding off each other, and I think that’s very important across all sorts of specialisms. Paper suddenly enabled this conversation to take place between specialists in different areas. You can access works from elsewhere and that has an enormously enriching effect.
Paste: A theme I saw was that paper’s influence is less about the technology itself, but the ideas it has helped spread. In that way, the history of paper is almost really simply the history of mankind.
Monro: I think that’s very true. It’s a common theme in the story of paper, that in cultures where they already had writing, when paper first emerges they look down on it as a bit cheap. They think, “Well, writing is a special thing, why would we commit writing to something as cheap as paper?” So you have scholars in China writing letters to each other apologizing for writing on paper, or you have Muslims unwilling to put the Qur’an on paper for centuries after they start using paper, or you have people in Europe saying paper will never take off when it arrives and not wanting to put anything too important on paper.
Paste: You talk a little about the threats to paper. Do you think we could ever move into a post-paper era? What, in your opinion, would be lost by such a change?
Monro: There are clearly areas where paper cannot compete. One of the arguments is that paper is very beautiful and tactile and so on. But I think traditionally the great strength of paper has not been the beautification. It has been that it’s cheap, easy to make, easy to access and easy to store. It’s convenient. Inevitably, it cannot compete when it comes to convenience with its virtual rival. So it’s inconceivable that reference materials or letters are going to as some point bounce back on paper.
But I think there are other areas, thing that we value, that we will continue to commit to paper. Around a year ago there were signs that we were reaching a saturation point of ebooks versus paper books, where the decline of paper books and the rise of ebooks in the U.K. are tailing off. I don’t know if that’s a long term phenomenon, but for many of us who want to read a novel, the idea that you can hold it in your hand, own it, put it on your shelf and have that physical contact with it makes it personal. It makes it part of your material life.
It is also sort of a token of its importance. We think a story is important enough to put in physical form, and that will always have a sort of power. And paper will always have that material power, which you can’t have on a screen where with one click it is gone. There’s a durability that will continue to appeal, and we will therefore continue to use it for things we value rather than just knowing we can access our favorite novels on a screen if we click the right place. I don’t think that’s just an old school paper lover speaking. I think it’s a universal phenomenon that we love to be able to touch and hold things. We’re not just conceptual, we’re physical.
With the Snowden revelations, there was a British journalist for The Guardian, Luke Harding. He was writing a book about the Edward Snowden story. Inevitably, some of what he was writing was quite sensitive stuff. He was writing it at home, and over the period of about two weeks, he would write a few paragraphs and then it would start deleting on his screen in front of him. I completely trust him, I don’t think he made this stuff up. It was a very curious thing; he’d never had it before with anything else. Anecdotally, I think it serves as a reminder that the universal access of technology is 99 percent of the time a great strength, but it does present dangers as well. The capacity of the state to monitor citizens is enormously heightened as we transfer everything to online, and our browsing habits can be seen and so on. If you have an illegal physical magazine, unless that magazine is found they won’t know that you’ve got it. It’s very different if everything you access is online. It may be that there are subversive uses for paper that will survive in societies where that’s been necessary because of the politics.