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By Stephen Wilson

Covering a 2,000-year history in 60 minutes is no easy feat, but Nicholas Basbanes, author of nine critically acclaimed works including the recent On Paper, worked to illustrate humanity’s common bond to papermaking processes and history. 

Delivering the 2019 Paul and June Schlueter Lecture in the Art and History of the Book Nov. 18, Basbanes helped the audience see paper as more than a surface. 

As Anne Houston, dean of libraries, noted in her introduction, “Many people take paper for granted or want to dismiss it as obsolete in a digital age.”

Over his eight-year journey of creating the book, Basbanes became captured by the subject as a “medium of transmission for our cultural history and storytelling.”

“What is a book?” he asked. “A gathering of paper bound by cardboard?” He shakes his head. “It is a coalescence of human intent.”

He then showed how strong that intent is to create meaning whether painting or carving on bricks, pottery, palm leaves, tortoise shells, wooden tablets, birch bark, bamboo, silk, papyrus, or paper.

“Books emerge on surfaces as surfaces emerge and evolve,” he said.

He dispelled myths: Papyrus is not the grandfather to paper; it only takes its name from it.

Paper is heralded as one of China’s four great inventions, which also includes printing.

Basbanes moved through his journey of collecting the history of paper during trips to Iraq, China, Japan, Europe, and Mexico.

He corrected stories long held as true: Bay Psalm Book (1640) is the first book in British North America, but the first book in the Americas came from Mexico in 1543.

He spoke of watching ancient papermaking techniques and holding rare tomes.

He showed how paper started wars: The Revolutionary War was spurred by the 1765 Stamp Act, which taxed all paper—newspapers and licences and degrees.

Paper was tied to class inequity as he noted in an 18th century poem: “Rags make paper, paper makes money, money makes banks, banks make loans, loans make beggars, beggars make rags.”

He pointed out the irony of paper as baseball cards and comic books sell for millions printed on “bad” paper.

Items like the sketchbooks of Da Vinci, compositions by Beethoven, notes by Edison, political agreements, and cultural documents reveal how paper connects our endeavors to humanity and history.

None as poignant as a final note smeared with blood found after the Twin Towers fell. Basbanes got choked up telling the story of how a man wrote a note (“84th floor West Office, 12 People trapped”) and threw it from a window. How the DNA was traced over 10 years and altered a family history of a husband and father’s final moments. All captured on a tattered piece of common bond paper.

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