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Book Notes

I'm doing a poor job of participating in the Caltech Book Club. I am, however, doing a fantastic job of reading the book club books. When this book entered the list, I immediately checked it out from the library and devoured it. A book on paper? PAPER? Sign me up!

The blurb from the back of the book:

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. By tracing paper’s evolution from antiquity to the present, with an emphasis on the contributions made in Asia and the Middle East, Mark Kurlansky challenges common assumptions about technology’s influence, affirming that paper is here to stay. Paper will be the commodity history that guides us forward in the twenty-first century and illuminates our times.

The book does that, gives a history of paper. I loved that part. It also gives a commentary on technology, how it develops, how it influences society, and why it happens. I enjoyed that part of it, too.

If you like paper, this book is worth reading. If you like history, also worth reading. I loved the book. YMMV

Throughout history the role of technology and people’s reactions to it have been remarkably consistent,
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There are other important lessons to be learned from the history of technology—and other commonly held fallacies. One is that new technology eliminates old. This rarely happens.
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[I]t is futile to denounce technology itself. Rather, you have to try to change the operation of the society for which the technology was created.
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You cannot warn about what a new technology will do to a society because that society has already made the shift.
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Society changes, and that change creates new needs. That is why the technology is brought in. The only way to stop the technology would be to reverse the changes in the society.
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A technology that is intended to redirect society will usually fail. In fact, most technology companies do not introduce new technology but new ways to use ideas that already exist.
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It says something about our world that we seldom remember the person who came up with an idea, but canonize the pragmatist who made it commercially viable. Already we have forgotten the people who created most of the important computer concepts and instead celebrate the people who became rich on them.
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But there is one truly unique human trait: people record. They record their deeds, their emotions, their thoughts, and their ideas . . . they have an impulse to record almost everything that enters their minds and to save it for future generations. And it is this urge that led to the invention of paper.
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Plato wrote, “And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting not only in the hands of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it. It doesn’t know how to address the right people and not address the wrong.” This may explain why he never wrote down what he considered his best ideas, his so-called unwritten doctrines,
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Many felt as Plato did, that once something was written down, it no longer came from within a person, but was external and therefore was not sincere, not heartfelt, and thus in a sense was made less true.
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Songs belong to oral culture. Everything about the way they are written is oral, which is why they are easy to memorize. When a song gets stuck in your head, this is not by chance. That is what they were built to do;
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IQ tests are often criticized for not truly measuring intelligence. What, then, do they measure? They measure literacy, because we have grown to associate literacy with intelligence.
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Writing was one of the few things the Chinese did not do first—though they do have the world’s oldest living written language.
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People had extensive collections of books, some of which they took with them when they traveled.
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The brushes would be dipped in an ink made from lampblack, the carbon from burned material—pine was best—mixed with a liquid.
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It has never been clear to historians why Chinese tradition credits the invention of the brush to Meng Tian.
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Modern-day historians have accused the short-lived Qin dynasty that he served of a tendency to obliterate earlier achievements and claim them for themselves.
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Throughout the ancient world, the direction of writing varied tremendously—right to left, left to right, top to bottom, bottom to top, and from the middle outward. The Mayans and Aztecs wrote all over the page, with lines directing the reader where to go next. Some cultures, such as the Greeks, switched the direction of their writing over time.
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In early Chinese history, valuables had been buried with the dead as offerings to the spirits, but the problem of grave robbing soon arose. During Han times, valuables were replaced with coins, but grave robbing persisted. Then the Chinese came up with the imaginative idea of making imitation valuables and imitation money out of paper; the gesture to the spirits was still there, but nothing was of use to the thieves.
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All kinds of judgments could be made by looking at someone’s handwriting.
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So, a few scholars have interpreted this passage as saying that a nation is formed on paper, by a written text.
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This expansion was occurring despite a continuing widespread feeling, still lingering from the Middle Ages, that writing could not be trusted. During the Middle Ages, even a message, if it was considered truly important, was delivered orally.
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Over the centuries, the monasteries had not changed much. From their inception in fifth-century Italy onward, they had always been places for reading. Monks, particularly in the Benedictine order, were expected to spend hours reading every day. Since reading was of necessity a daylight activity, monks were required to read only two hours a day in the winter, but three in the summer. They had to read an entire book during Lent, and smaller books were made so that a monk could fulfill his reading obligation when traveling.
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In some countries such as France and Italy, paper workers attained a certain measure of power by banding into guilds. These workers were well paid and their meals were provided, so they saved most of what they earned, hoping to eventually buy their own mills. Whole families—mother, father, and children—would live and work in the mill and save toward this goal, which was attainable if they lived long enough because there was always room for a new paper mill.
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We know that Gutenberg was a goldsmith, which is significant. Many early printers were goldsmiths, because it took skill with metal to make moveable type; there were numerous high-quality goldsmiths in Mainz.
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Usually the person credited with an invention, the one who makes it work and makes it profitable, is a savvy businessman. This was probably true of Cai Lun, but it was not true of Gutenberg. He never became wealthy.
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Of course, not everyone loved printing. As with every other new technology, there were those who were disdainful—some who thought it was barbarism, some who thought it was the end of civilization, and some who thought it was a threat to their jobs.
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Many of the aristocrats who employed scribes and maintained libraries of handwritten books were contemptuous of what they saw as sleazy imitations, which in a sense the printed books were.
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Books had been rare, and their power had been well appreciated. So these newfangled printers with their strange ability to produce books for sale by the hundreds were regarded in some quarters with great suspicion.
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A certain human touch was missing in the way the letters and the words all had exactly the same spacing, they said. It was rigid and uncreative.
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Leonardo da Vinci was notorious in his lifetime for his inability to complete projects. He would accept a commission for some grand undertaking and would never get beyond the start. As a government official in Florence said in 1506 about a mural the artist had only begun, “He made a very small beginning of a very large thing.”
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Leonardo’s problem was well summed up by Pope Leo X, who once saw him engrossed in trying to create the perfect formula for varnish instead of painting: “This man will never do anything, for he begins by thinking about the end before the beginning of his work.”
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Though he is usually thought of as a painter, only fifteen paintings, some unfinished, have been found, along with two damaged murals.
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Five years later, he printed the fictional Hypnerotomachia by Francesco de Colonna, a book that garnered more attention. It was an erotic romance, not at all shocking for the time; pornography was a popular genre in the emerging printing trade.
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These small, portable books, which Aldus called libelli portatiles, are credited with changing people’s reading habits. This, of course, is the technological fallacy at work once again. Aldus did not change reading habits. Rather, a change in reading habits prompted him to produce a different kind of book. He could see that books were too big for the way the new readers wanted to use them. Books were no longer read only by learned monks and scholars at stands in monasteries and castles but by a broad range of people, especially in Italy and France. People wanted to read while lounging in chairs or at a café; they wanted to take books to work to read on breaks or on trips.
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She also wanted Spilman’s mill to succeed because she was troubled by the extent to which England relied on imports from France.
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The French Crown that had tried so rigorously to stop their papermakers from working in England ended up driving them there.
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The French war on Protestants also caused some French paper mills to shut down, reducing their output of the valuable export. Realizing their mistake, the French government attempted to win back some of their papermakers. Numerous French papermakers in England were taken into custody and legal action ensued; others were persuaded to return home, their travel expenses paid for.
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During an attack of plague in 1536, paper mills in Middlesex were closed down, and when the government asked the public to help support the out-of-work papermakers, the locals complained that they had earned better salaries than most artisans and should have saved their money.
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As the scribes of old were keenly aware, literacy is empowering and a threat to despotic rule. Saye’s great crime, according to Cade, was not losing Normandy but sending children to school.
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Unlike broadsides, pamphlets had traditionally been aimed at the intelligentsia, but Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, clearly aimed at common citizens, changed that. In an age of flowery prose, his language was clear, direct, and unadorned.
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THE HISTORY OF paper offers insight into why the colonists wanted independence from Britain. A coin, a paper mill, a newspaper—whatever it was that the colonists wanted, the Crown often prohibited it. And then the British tried to earn revenue by taxing the goods the colonists were forced to import from England because local production was stifled.
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DETERMINED TO KEEP the paper mills open during the Revolution, the colonists exempted papermakers from military service.
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paper plugs were needed to seal the black powder in the muskets’ firing chambers, to keep it separate from bullets, and paper cartridges were required to encase the powder and bullets. Sometimes, that paper was scarce. In 1776, according to historian William St. Clair, most of the 3,000-copy press run of Saur’s 1776 German Bible was used to fire American muskets.
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The soldiers found 2,500 copies of the sermon and sent it off to Monmouth, where it was used to plug the muskets of the men fighting the British to a draw in a famously tough battle—later renowned as the one instance in which George Washington was said to have cursed.
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A French paper mill on the eve of the French Revolution still involved women sorting rags, a pulper—usually old water-powered stampers—a vat, a vatman, a coucher, waterleaves pressed between felt by sturdy men, a presser with a big bar to compress the felt, women hanging paper to dry, a sizeman cooking up sizing, women examining sheets and removing the flawed ones, and a loftman wrapping the sheets into reams. These workers all had very specific skills, and there were strict rules about which jobs were for women and which for men.
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In prerevolutionary France, paper workers had more power and were more assertive than most other workers because they were few in number and highly skilled. They were known to walk off the job and spend an afternoon in a nearby tavern, returning only at mealtime. They had a reputation for being independent and unruly, and they ignored government regulations.
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the publisher did not have the expense of binding. He sold sewn pages, which the buyer, after carefully inspecting the quality of the paper used, took to a bookbinder.
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It could even be argued, as Diderot did, that the spread of reading and its accompanying spread of knowledge led to rebellion against the old order. This was why that old order, the aristocracies and clergy of Europe, were tremendously fearful of this increasing popularity of books and newspapers and reading in general.
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As with all changes, there was considerable discussion about their repercussions. Not everyone believed, as did Diderot, that reading was a positive and liberating experience. Some believed, as Cervantes had noted with irony, that too much reading could ruin a person. This fear of reading was connected with the desire to oppress, as is evident in the many arguments over time claiming that reading was not good for the working class or for women or for slaves.
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On the eve of the French Revolution, Diderot had predicted that enormous changes were coming to society, that those changes would bring with them technology, and that technology, in turn, would make people freer. This is partly because he thought that technology would make information more readily available. But the dissemination of information alone does not set people free, and a new information technology creates a new ruling class. Technology by itself does not change the nature of society.
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The local people were deeply offended by the scavengers, especially the ragmen, some of whom, they said, went as far as to dig up shallow graves.
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The Glatfelter Company still makes paper on the site today.
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The preferable wood for this trade was spruce. According to the company, it turned 7 million cords of pulpwood into paper in 1923. An acre of land grew an estimated five cords of pulpwood, so the company had consumed the wood of 140,000 acres, or 220 square miles, of forestland in a single year.
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The Zai Yuan Tang Mill in Anhui Province, just north of Jinxian, was
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ABOUT FORTY-FIVE MILES north of Tokyo, in the Dohira Mountains, is the town of Ogama-Machi, famous for making washi for the past 1,200 years. Before
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Teizou is now seventy-eight and says of his craft, “I get easily sick of it.”
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With remarkable frequency, the phrase is uttered, “The world is changing.” It is certainly true that the world is changing, but this sentence is often announced as though the world had never changed before. There has been no period in human history when the world was not changing.
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Today’s ideas, facilitated by the inventions of the Industrial Revolution, are taking as long to lead to new inventions as did the ideas of the Industrial Revolution. One of the reasons why we believe otherwise, why we imagine our times to be moving so swiftly, is that we live in an age of marketing. Electronic devices are built with planned obsolescence; that is, they are deliberately built not to last, so that everyone will have to buy another one soon.
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People like to write down quick notes and memos on paper even if they have a cell phone with a memo function.
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Different people have different paper preferences and appear to enjoy having choices.
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Computers were not developed to replace books or paper; they were developed to be a better way to store and access information.
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And written language itself has been returning to its early development, to pictographs and hieroglyphics. There are the signs by the side of the road, the signs denoting women’s and men’s bathrooms, and the growth of the use of emoticons—
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Why are these pictographs conveying feelings, such as , meaning “happy,” increasingly becoming part of the digital vocabulary of the twenty-first century? It is because change and the resistance to change always work hand in hand.
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