Saturday, September 20, 2014
Book Review 334: Paper: An Elegy
PAPER: An Elegy, by Ian Sansom. 231 pages, illustrated. Morrow
One reason (of several) that I never pay attention to predictions by digital mavens is that they were so stridently wrong about paper. It is easy to make a wrong prediction, but in this case the evidence was right there.
Surprisingly, Ian Sansom doesn’t use it, although he squeezes an awful lot into a small space in “Paper: An Elegy.” You probably recall the factoid I am thinking of: When the plain paper copier was introduced, Xerox estimated that most users would make a dozen copies a day or so.
Fortunately those early copiers were robust, because counters showed that they were making around 100,000 copies a year: a ream every working day. And even if you never heard that story, it’s hard not to notice that the local stationery store runs a more-or-less continuous teaser sale of copier paper if you buy 10 boxes at a time.
As Sansom shows in this eclectic survey, even if the paperless office had emerged, paper would still be in our hands all the time. In fast-paced chapters, he covers advertisements, money, clothing, origami, games and puzzles, spying, money and much more.
Money might be just about the one use of paper that really will diminish because of digital methods. Yet it is hanging on pretty well still. Who knows, the inability or incompetence of vendors to safeguard credit card data may cause a rush back to greenbacks?
If there is a deficiency in this book, it is that Sansom, a teacher in Ireland, gives so little space to each use of paper; and not much to the manufacture of the stuff, although the bibliography shows where to go for more.
Big swathes of interest are ignored, like the move away from chlorine in paper mills. Barely mentioned, but hugely important, is the fact that digital files have a very short shelf life. Among the great advantages of paper over computers is that, once marked, paper can be read without any tools. Even the biggest libraries have trouble finding machinery to read some of their old digital media.