IN OTHER WORDS book reviews On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year History by Nicholas A. Basbanes, Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House, 430 pages As a rule, subtitles affixed to nonfiction books overpromise. A favorite of publishers is one that includes “and how America was forever changed,” or words to that effect. To his credit, and that of his publisher, Nicholas A. Basbanes put an honest subtitle to his newest work, On Paper. It is indeed “The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History.” A prodigious and endlessly fascinating tome, On Paper, which has been shortlisted for the American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, can be read either as a single work or nibbled on over time like a Whitman’s Sampler. Even if Basbanes were not the accomplished writer of books on books that he is, this new work could sustain itself on the endless parade of conversation-starter tidbits. Here’s a sampling. ▼ The $1 bill is designed to be folded back and forth a minimum of 8,000 times before tearing in its 41st month of life in our wallets, hands, and cash-register drawers. ▼ After World War I, nurses got to wondering why the surgical dressings they had used on soldiers could not be adapted for their personal use. A KimberlyClarke marketing specialist got the message, and the sanitary napkin entered the marketplace. ▼ The average American consumer uses 57 sheets of toilet paper a day according to Procter & Gamble, the makers of Charmin. That’s part of the reason the domestic toilet-paper industry produces more than seven billion rolls of the stuff annually. ▼ Paper, when used to encase gunpowder, made possible one of the most important and enduring technological breakthroughs in the human habit of killing each other. ▼ When you hold a pizza box or an egg carton, you might just be clasping a product that was made from pulp of paper that once held the NSA’s deepest secrets in a former life. Facts, however, don’t make a story, and fact-laden prose can easily sink under its own weight. But in Basbanes’ capable hands, the assembled elements become amusing, fascinating, and at times profound. He is the bibliophile’s Bill Bryson and takes the reader on a journey of discovery about an object we take for granted but cannot do without. We boil tea using it. We smoke tobacco wrapped in it. We clean ourselves with it. We pay each other with it. We paint and draw on it. We record our lives,
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our histories, and our stories with it. We first took to the air in balloons and early planes built with it. In short, the list of its uses is endless. So, apparently, were the author’s efforts to tell its story. Over the course of writing the book, Basbanes traveled around the globe. He went from rural China to the paper mills in Connecticut that make Kleenex and from the highly secure mill of a Massachusetts firm that rolls out the paper used in our currency to the inner recesses of the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland (it took seven months to get permission), and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., where surviving copies of Shakespeare’s early works are locked away. In his travels and research he pursued not an account of paper’s 2,000-year history, although he certainly provides one. “My driving interest,” explains Basbanes, “points more to the idea of paper, one that certainly takes in the twin notions of medium and message but that also examines its indispensability as a tool of flexibility and function.” This is the genius of the book. It is a meditation on the essence of paper that pushes readers to consider paper in ways that most of us never have. The chapter called “Hard Copy” exemplifies the rewards of the approach. In it, Basbanes looks at how the concept of proving something happened means finding the paperwork. “The aptness of the verb document, as another way of saying ‘authenticate,’ and its obvious provenance from a synonym for ‘paper,’ seems self-evident.” As a storyteller, he follows his observation with riveting documentary tales relating to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. The latter prompts the question, according to Basbanes, whether the pursuit of paper in the break-ins of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and the attempted burglary of the Democratic offices brought down a president of the United States. “An oversimplification, perhaps, but like every other drama in which this medium has played a role, it is there, just off center stage, in a supporting role — but a forceful presence all the same.” As one approaches the end of On Paper, having learned of its history, its varied and seemingly endless uses, and its cultural, intellectual, and economic importance, among other considerations, Basbanes produces a masterful bit of reporting reflective of his years as an investigative journalist. Retaining his focus on paper, Basbanes provides a fresh view of perhaps the most reported story of this century, Sept. 11. To say more would spoil the end of the book. — James McGrath Morris
Spring has sprung in Santa Fe — at least for the moment — and it’s time to grab a good book and read in the sunshine. Here are the top-selling novels, short-story collections, historical accounts, birding guides, comic books, and kids books from local merchants.
Bee Hive Kids Books 328 Montezuma Ave., 505-780-8051 1. Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth 2. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo 3. Ten Little Rabbits by Virginia Grossman (writer) and Sylvia Long (artist) 4. Trucks Go by Steve Light 5. Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker (writer) and Tom Lichtenheld (artist) Big Adventure Comics 801-B Cerrillos Road, 505-992-8783 1. Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian K.Vaughn (writer) and Fiona Staples (artist) 2. Amulet, Vol. 1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi 3. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Martin Powell (writer) and Jamie Chase (artist) 4. Saga, Vol. 2 by Brian K. Vaughn (writer) and Fiona Staples (artist) 5. Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground by Darwyn Cooke Collected Works Bookstore 202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226 1. The Son by Philipp Meyer 2. Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides 3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt 4. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner 5. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert Garcia Street Books 376 Garcia St., 505-986-0151 1. The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition, by David Allen Sibley 2. Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore 3. The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit 4. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert 5. Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir by Penelope Lively Affordable books are always available at the Friends of the Library bookstores, located at the Main (145 Washington Ave.) and Southside (6599 Jaguar Drive) branches. The big spring sale at the Main Library is on April 26 and 27. — Jennifer Levin
Pasatiempo, April 11, 2014