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Paper: Paging Through History

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  1,759 ratings  ·  298 reviews
Paper is one of the simplest and most essential pieces of human technology. For the past two millennia, the ability to produce it in ever more efficient ways has supported the proliferation of literacy, media, religion, education, commerce, and art; it has formed the foundation of civilizations, promoting revolutions and restoring stability. One has only to look at history ...more
Paperback, 389 pages
Published May 23rd 2017 by W. W. Norton Company (first published May 10th 2016)
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This was a fascinating book on the history of paper. I especially enjoyed the discussion on technology, and how it’s a common myth that “technology changes society.” Instead, Kurlansky argues that society is what changes, and technology is developed to meet the new needs of the people.

Besides the interesting look at the various ways that different cultures throughout history have created unique ways of creating paper and recording documents, this book also includes details on the history of writ
May 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook
Those who have been following my reviews of late will know that I have been drawn to Mark Kurlansky’s work on the history of certain edible items. In these pieces, the author depicts the evolution and exponential uses for the products throughout the centuries. Here, with the history of paper before me, some may feel that things will take a significant turn towards the mundane. Just how interesting can paper be and how can someone extol its virtues for hundreds of pages? I, too, was somewhat a sk ...more
I'm very into microhistories – books focused on a specific topic or single event – and Kurlansky is one of the best known authors of them, with his book Salt probably the best-known microhistory of them all. In this book, he takes on paper, which he defines very narrowly: "a very thin layer of randomly woven fibers", which excludes papyrus, parchment, vellum, and other materials that I'd thought were basically the same thing. Now I know better! And then of course there are all the paper-adjacent ...more
Bryan Alkire
Jul 13, 2020 rated it it was ok
Mediocre book. I was looking forward to reading this one and ended up disappointed. The idea was interesting and the content itself was interesting. The huge problems were organization and writing. Frankly, I would have been embarrassed to turn this in for a high school composition class. Yes, it’s that badly organized. It’s as if there were no editor overseeing the project. If there was, and I never read acknowledgements so I don’t know, then said editor should be fired. There is no structure b ...more
May 17, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I had very high hopes for Paper, but Kurlansky's book never fulfilled them. The book could never make up its mind whether it was about the manufacturing of paper or what paper is used for. Kurlansky fashions himself an expert on the history of technology, but seems to sell Asia short.

This is the second book I've read on the history of paper. I read Ian Sansom's book on it in 2013. That wasn't all that interesting either. I think I'm officially retired from the history of paper reading department
Feb 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from NetGalley.

Some may consider it ironic that one would read a book about paper on an eBook reader. And it would probably be better not to, as studies tend to indicate that reading from a paper book results in more retention of information. But nevertheless I shall endeavor to review this book: Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky.

Kurlansky is probably best known for his books Salt and Cod, other sweeping histories of commodities, as
An interesting history of the paper industry and many issues related to it like writing, painting, education, technology, printing and many others.

While I did enjoy the descriptions of the paper making , the hardships related to it, the shortages related to the raw materials that were used in the history, the effect of paper shortages on printing, and many other aspects of our life, I did have some issue with the technological claims that were presented in the book.

The main technological claim
Nov 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was a real eye-opener. I didn't know that something as simple as paper could have such a long and fascinating history. The author traces the production of paper from ancient times to modern times. I was captivated by this book and a little disappointed it went so fast. Good books are like that, though. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves books and just reading in general. A fantastic and quick read. ...more
Mar 14, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had read Mark Kurlansky's book on oysters (The Big Oyster) and learned more than I had ever realized about oysters and enjoyed it even though I never eat oysters. When I saw this book on paper I knew I would enjoy reading it as well because I do love paper -- love to use it, love to buy it and often talk myself out of acquiring even more of it! This book did not disappoint me although all of his books require you to make an investment of time because they are quite detailed. Kurlansky's premi ...more
Margaret Sankey
Like Kurlansky's other books on a commodity, this ends up being a full spectrum tour of human communications, religion, art and commerce, centered around the material culture of paper. There is nothing new here, but with a global sweep, Kurlansky explains how, depending on your material (mulberry bark, cotton, wood pulp, papyrus) and your purpose (shoji screens, scrolls, sketchpad, bureaucratic forms), you get different ends, with artifact lives of their own. ...more
Holly Woodward
Apr 26, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was a great read, subtly conveying the ways paper is interwoven with history, both material and intellectual. In one particularly interesting section, Kurlansky traces the ways the American Revolution was bound up with the history of printing in the colonies.

I loved the author’s book, Salt, and this new work rivals its brilliance.
Oct 03, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is a genre of books that some have called commodity histories. These are focused histories of specific products (Cotton) or products (the screwdriver). I generally find these books fascinating and the trivia one gets from them is more than enough to show off to colleagues or stop conversations at parties in their tracks. It is sort of a guilty pleasure. II have a book on the history of the elevator waiting in my queue.

Mark Kurlansky is a free ranging journalist who is a master of the commo
Jan 28, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, first-reads
This book was received as part of the Goodreads Firstreads giveaway.

I have long been intrigued by Mark Kurlansky's approach to history - tracing a single item's impact on the history of the world. Paper was my first chance to read one of his works and I was very impressed. Kurlansky starts with cave painting and traces paper's and the world's history all the way through to the present day. Throughout the book he shows how the creation of paper and corresponding developments such as paper mills,
Becky Laswell
Jun 01, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
unlikely to finish. first chapter has errors, wild opinions, and generalizations
gabrielle ✿
May 06, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Kurlansky fans, people with an interest in history and a bit of patience
Recommended to gabrielle ✿ by: Mel Clancy
"What are you reading now?" my friend asked me as we were leaving the bar, both of us readers and both vaguely interested in the other's tastes. I knew I couldn't tell him "A history of paper," so I tried to sell it a bit. I tried banking on the author's previous successes: "It's called 'Paper' and it's by the same guy that wrote 'Cod' and 'Salt'." No sell, he wasn't impressed. He returned only a blank expression devoid of any recognition. I'd have to go in: "It's a history of paper and of gener ...more
Jul 16, 2018 marked it as unfinished
getting real tired of white men writing about book history and sounding condescendingly incredulous that chinese people were making paper before they had a name for cellulose. idk maybe I'll pick it up another time. ...more
Oct 17, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, anthropology
I am a bibliophile. I love books and the ideas I find within their covers. I also love pretty stationary, fancy expensive paper, decorated notebooks, and calligraphy pens. I got a bit over-excited at Bled Castle in Slovenia when I got to help operate the renaissance era printing press (ok, it was probably a reproduction, but who cares). So of course I was all over this book by the author of Salt which I have also been affectionately ridiculed for reading and loving.

Paper: Paging Through History
Yet another one of those "biography of things" books that I adore, written by the guy who can be argued started this whole genre.

In addition to paper, this book is just as much about the evolution of writing, the early book industry (or incunabula, one of my favorite words from library school) and printing in general. I liked the earlier parts of the book that dealt with the topic from a historic view. The later chapters felt a bit unnecessary and seemed somehow separate. Kurlansky seems to have
E. Kahn
Interesting and quite well-written, but contains some odd inaccuracies unrelated to the main topic of the book.

"European languages had no word for zero. In fact, most European languages only had words for "one," "two," and "many." You could have one potato or two potatoes or many potatoes, but if you had many potatoes, there was no number for that."

For context, this is about the times of Pope Sylvester II, whom the author consistently (and oddly) refers to as Gerbert, and while this may have bee
Peter Tillman
This one started out strong, but I started to lose interest when he got to the Renaissance, and spent a good deal of space relating individual papermills and workers setting up around Europe.

OK, I skimmed that stuff. The art stuff is pretty cool, but the book was overdue. I may go back to finish it. Or not. So many books, so little time....
Apr 25, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: microhistories
I'm a little torn on how to rate this book (I think I would give it 3.5 if I could). To be completely honest, after reading it, I feel slightly less eager to read some of the author's other books than I was before I read this (even though I'm sure I will at least read Salt: A World History at some point). It was definitely interesting and I learned a lot, but I was disappointed with how dry it felt (compared with other microhistories I've read so far). To me it read like a research paper; there ...more
Dec 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love books like this. Mark Kurlansky basically covers the history of the world, but all the details involve paper. The writing is conversational and entertaining. This is the professor you would love to have in college. He ties a lot of historical threads together. It is easy to forget how central paper is to our current and past times. I learned a lot.

One point Kurlansky keeps coming back to is the notion that society develops the technology it needs, as opposed to the popular notion that it
Apr 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Really enjoyed this one. It's a nice marriage of big thematic stuff (in this case, looking at the relationship of society and technology) with lots of lovely intriguing detail (about paper-making, about related processes, about the things people do and why and how). The style was easy and intelligent without being opaque. Somewhat Eurocentric in structure, but doing its best to de-Euro-fy the relevant history. ...more
Like other reviewers have noted, this Paper book covers a lot of writing as well as paper itself, but more important, it just doesn't seem careful with its research, unlike Salt.

After reading that Islam in the Middle Ages conquered land as far east (sic) as the Iberian peninsula and as far west (sic) as modern day Pakistan, and reading that a Japanese plot in World War II to have paper balloons deliver bombs over the west coast in retaliation for the Doolittle raid, but that it had been research
Aug 29, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
An alternate title for the book could be Paper: A Brief History of the Evolution of Mathematics, Writing, and Art Including A Million Interesting Facts. At times it read a little bit like a textbook, but if it was the most interesting textbook of the semester. I had to mark every few pages so I could share some bit of information around the dinner table. There were things I had never thought about, like the development of sheet music or the "invention" of the number zero. The book is an excellen ...more
Eustacia Tan
Dec 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: nlb-ereads
I debated between two and three stars for this, but while I was disappointed, I didn't hate the book so I ended up giving it three stars

So this has been on my TBR list for a couple of years. I had pretty high hopes for this because I love histories that focus on one unexpected subject, but I found myself rapidly losing interest in this.

I had thought that Paper would be a history of paper. However, it’s really more a history of writing, technology, and cultural change as it related to paper. Perh
Porter Broyles
Feb 06, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: genre-ecclectic
I didn't finish this book. I completed about 80% of it before I decided that there were other books I'd rather tackle. I picked this book up because I needed something to counter a very good, but challenging book on racism. I wanted a history that was light and entertaining... such as

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Kurlanky is a fun book on an off the wall subject. The coverage isn't too deep, but you keep thinking to yourself "OMG, this is a book about a fish and it's go
Nov 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Kurlansky specializes in identifying items that have affected the course of history. His most well-known might be Salt, one of my favorites. Paper is similarly engaging, tackling the ubiquitous material that we handle every day, paper. I have never thought about it before, but someone had to figure out this completely different use of cellulose fibers, which first had to be soaked and mashed to a pulp, molded and dried into sheets. I had heard of "ragpickers" before, a job for the poorest citize ...more
Jun 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For readers who love history, science, and technology, "Paper" by Mark Kurlansky is a fascinating (and highly detailed) new book on paper and printmaking. Much like Kurlansky's other single-subject tomes ("Salt" and "Cod"), his exhaustively researched book about paper ad printmaking doubles as a retrospective on world history. He masterfully charts the development of paper and printing as both a commodity and a means of communication, helping readers to (rightfully) view paper in all forms as ye ...more
Another fine product by Mark Kurlansky! I'll be forever grateful to him and Salt for introducing me to the joys of a good microhistory, and Paper keeps the tradition going. This wasn't my favorite microhistory or Kurlansky work - probably because my favorites have to do with food, and the history of paper just isn't as engrossing to me as things I can eat! - but it was still dense, educational, and often fascinating. If you're a microhistory/commodity history fan, an artist who will appreciate a ...more
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Mark Kurlansky has written, edited, or contributed to twenty books, which have been translated into twenty-five languages and won numerous prizes. His previous books Cod, Salt, 1968, and The Food of a Younger Land were all New York Times best-sellers.

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