Every day, the average American handles an estimated 30 different objects made out of paper. This begs the question, is the “paperless society” we hear so much about as imminent as some people suggest? In a new book, a noted bibliophile seeks to answer this question by exploring how and why paper has become a ubiquitous part of our lives. Since its invention 2,000 years ago in China, paper has revolutionized human civilization. We take a look at paper’s sweeping influence on society from Islamic scholarship to the American Revolutionary War and pulp mills that make billions of boxes of Kleenex.


  • Nicholas Basbanes Lecturer and author of numerous books.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from “On Paper” by Nicholas Basbanes. Copyright © 2013 by Nicholas Basbanes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Since its invention in China 2,000 years ago paper has played a crucial role in many historical events. In a new book author Nicholas Basbanes says paper has revolutionized civilization from the Islamic Golden Age to the European Renaissance and the history of human flight.

  • 11:07:19

    MS. DIANE REHMHis new book is titled "On Paper: The Everything of Its Two Thousand Year History." Nicholas Basbanes joins me in the studio and you're invited to be part of the program. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet, and welcome to you, sir.

  • 11:07:49

    MR. NICHOLAS BASBANESThank you, Diane, thank you for having me again and congratulations on this exquisite new studio. It's just beautiful.

  • 11:07:55

    REHMOh, I'm so glad you're here and, yes, it's lovely to have the light coming into this studio. People walking by can glance in...

  • 11:08:06

    BASBANESIt's wonderful.

  • 11:08:07

    REHM...so I'm happy about that. And if they were to glance in, they would see lots of pieces of paper in front of me. You went to Southwestern China, the birthplace of paper, to see and to understand the process. Tell me about that journey.

  • 11:08:29

    BASBANESReally. And if I'm asked about what are some of the most extraordinary experiences of this eight-year project, I would have to say that trip, that three-week trip to China with a number -- a small group of paper historians. But to go to the birthplace not only to see where paper was invented and how it was introduced, but really to go and find some villages, to find some people who continue to make paper in exactly the same way as they did 2,000 years ago.

  • 11:08:59

    REHMCan you describe that process?

  • 11:09:00

    BASBANESAnd that's one of the great attractions that really mesmerized me about the study of paper. It began as a continuation of my explorations into books and book culture, but it took on a life of its own because paper, while it's a natural product, it's also an idea and it really isn't something that just would have happened. It really took perception.

  • 11:09:23

    BASBANESIt took some knowledge to be able to take this cellulosic fiber, any kind of vegetative source to reduce it to fragments, to expose the cellulose which because of this oddity of chemistry that we call hydrogen bonding is a form of chemical adhesion which allows cellulosic fibers to adhere to each other and to make this film with water, these sheets that we call paper. So that in a nutshell is really the process and it hasn't really changed.

  • 11:09:58

    BASBANESThere are three basic elements to paper. That was the case then, it's the case today. You need cellulose. You need a vegetative source. You need water and you need a screen, a screen mold to allow the water to pass through and to leave this film with paper.

  • 11:10:14

    REHMDo we know who those first persons were who put those elements together?

  • 11:10:23

    BASBANESThe Chinese regard paper as one of their four outstanding inventions of antiquity. Gun powder, the magnetic compass, printing, they invented printing hundreds of years before we had any kind of printing in the West, and paper. Unlike the others the Chinese have a name of a person Ts'ai Lun, who they attribute. They give him credit for introducing paper and they have a year 105 A.D.

  • 11:10:54

    BASBANESHe was at court. He worked for the emperor. And he was the first truly to articulate the making of paper, the processes that were necessary but generally speaking we now believe, we know there's very good evidence that it developed over a period of several hundred years.

  • 11:11:07

    BASBANESThey have found fragments in China. Aurel Stein, the great British explorer found some fragments in the Great Wall of China that can be dated to 200 B.C. so it was a process that developed over several hundred years. But he formalized it at the Imperial Court.

  • 11:11:25

    REHMDo we have an idea of what those first examples might have looked like?

  • 11:11:29

    BASBANESOh, there are some surviving samples and it is paper, you know.

  • 11:11:36

    REHMI mean, it's certainly not...

  • 11:11:38

    BASBANESNo, it's not. And what you're holding up is a sheet of common bond machine-made...

  • 11:11:43


  • 11:11:43

    BASBANES…paper. But this was all handmade paper with a random distribution of the fibers and so the process is you take this mold, it's a screen mold and you either dip it into this water, this slurry of fibrous material suspended in water and you screen it. The original papermakers suspended it through a brace of poles, so the water drained out and then, wonder of wonders, you were left when it dried with a sheet of paper.

  • 11:12:13

    BASBANESBut there was this random distribution of fibers as they adhered together and that's one of the ways that you can tell handmade paper, another way is by the chain links that are left on there.

  • 11:12:22

    REHMSo you go on from the beginnings of paper to talk about our intellectual growth...

  • 11:12:31

    BASBANESYeah, that was the fun.

  • 11:12:33

    REHM...and how that's linked to paper.

  • 11:12:36

    BASBANESYou know, when you introduced the book, you also mention the subtitle and I should point out the word everything is in all caps and it's italicized. It's the playful use of the word, everything. No book can purport to be everything but I did take an, everything, approach.

  • 11:12:53

    BASBANESAnd so while you and I are now talking about the history and the introduction in China, and then I go to Japan. I went and spent a day with a living national treasure paper-maker, the ninth generation of his family to be making paper.

  • 11:13:06

    REHMWas it gorgeous?

  • 11:13:07

    BASBANESIt was extraordinary. His paper is really regarded by many artists and calligraphers and printmakers as...

  • 11:13:14

    REHMWorks of art.

  • 11:13:14

    BASBANES...works of art unto themselves and I have brought several sheets of his paper and I've been thinking I would just like to frame, you know. Usually you frame a piece of paper with something that's been drawn on or...

  • 11:13:29

    REHMWritten or drawn, yeah.

  • 11:13:29

    BASBANES...and I would just like to frame that piece of paper because it is a work of art.

  • 11:13:33

    REHMWhat color is it?

  • 11:13:33

    BASBANESIt's white. It's a very creamy white and you asked about how he makes it. He makes it by hand and when I first met him, his son, who will be the tenth -- his name is (word?) the ninth. And when his son succeeds him, he'll be the tenth. And his father, by the way, was also a living national treasure papermaker in Japan, in fact the first to be so designated.

  • 11:13:52

    BASBANESBut when I was brought to...

  • 11:13:56

    REHMI mean, designated...

  • 11:13:56


  • 11:13:57

    REHM...living treasure...

  • 11:14:00

    BASBANES...a living national treasure...

  • 11:14:01


  • 11:14:01

    BASBANESBecause it is a declining handicraft, I mean to make paper by hand. There are only 250 or so of these studios left in Japan. Not so long ago there were thousands of these. It's becoming mechanized now you see.

  • 11:14:15

    REHMWhat does one of these pieces of paper feel like?

  • 11:14:19

    BASBANESIt's just an exquisite feeling because he uses all natural. It's called kozo. It's from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree and this is by the way.

  • 11:14:28

    REHMThe inner bark?

  • 11:14:30

    BASBANESThe inner bark, which is called bast, that was a word that was new to me when I started my investigations.

  • 11:14:35

    REHMYou are a bibliophile. I have a new word.

  • 11:14:39

    BASBANESAnd it's one syllable too and I should know it but it is bast, and what it is, it's this fibrous, soft white, creamy white inner fiber material that is scooped out. It's, of course, you cook these branches. And the beauty of this, of these particular trees is that you don't have to harvest the whole tree. It's renewable. They harvest them in the winter. That's the best time.

  • 11:15:01

    BASBANESThere are papermakers, like Master (word?) who will only use kozo that's harvested in the winter. In the winter because the sap isn't running, it makes for a better fiber, a stronger fiber. But then he will reduce these. They will remove the bast from the bark of the. They'll de-bark it. They'll prepare it and then they'll pound it into a pulp and it has very long fibers so the Japanese paper is really notable for its strength because of these long fibers.

  • 11:15:31

    BASBANESAnd then he'll actually go through the process. When I met him he and his son were in this water room, the washing room they called it. And they had these buckets of fiber and they were on their knees. They were on their hands and knees. Their hands were freezing cold, mountain water which was coming down and they were taking out the specks of bark, individually, individually.

  • 11:15:53

    BASBANESSo you would have this very pure fiber which would then ultimately be made into these exquisite sheets.

  • 11:15:59

    REHMNicholas Basbanes, his new book is titled "On Paper: The Everything of Its Two Thousand Year History." I must say I loved the paper on which your book...

  • 11:16:16

    BASBANESThank you so much.

  • 11:16:16

    REHM...has been printed. But you know, isn't it too bad that instead of cutting down whole trees as we do in this country we too could not use some sort of renewable process?

  • 11:16:34

    BASBANESIt would be wonderful if we could do that and of course, I have a chapter in here on recycling and a lot of paper is re-purposed...

  • 11:16:41


  • 11:16:41

    BASBANES...and resourced.

  • 11:16:44

    REHMBut the trees, it's not just the barks, the ends, the barks of the trees.

  • 11:16:50

    BASBANESOh, the tree, that's a whole different -- the trees really were the last great hurdle. I have a chapter called "Rags to Riches" and it really. You take it literally and that's my chapter on American paper-making where, which begins in 1690 and outside of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia and for hundreds, for several hundred years the only source for paper in America was rags and also in Europe it was.

  • 11:17:15

    BASBANESSo it's one of the only major industries I can think of that relied almost preponderantly on the detritus of a discarded product which in the West was rags, cotton and linen rags because they're pure cellulose. You've heard these stories of the rag pickers who would go around and they would gather rags and sell them to the papermakers.

  • 11:17:38

    BASBANESWhen Crane Paper was founded in Massachusetts in 1801 by Zenas Crane and that's still a family-owned...

  • 11:17:44

    REHMOh, absolutely, I use Crane. I love Crane

  • 11:17:46

    BASBANES...business after seven generations.

  • 11:17:48

    REHMI love Crane.

  • 11:17:48

    BASBANESWonderful stationery, I spent two days there. They make of course all of the paper for American currency. Well that's a tree-free operation. In 200 years they have never made a sheet of paper from trees. They use cotton and linen and the detritus that they're able to buy from suppliers. Seventy-five percent cotton, 25 percent flags for American currency so it's very precisely measured.

  • 11:18:13

    BASBANESSo they don't use trees, but your question is well taken. I suppose we'll get to it after the break.

  • 11:18:18

    REHMAnd we will, the book, "On Paper" by Nicholas Basbanes. I know you'll want to join in the conversation. Give us a call 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org or join us on Facebook or Twitter.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. My guest today, his second time on the program, is Nicholas Basbanes. He describes himself as bibliophiliac, one who clearly loves books, paper and everything associated with it. His new book is titled, "On Paper." Here is our first email. Before the break you and I were talking about Crane, the large stationery making company, which produces the paper for money as well as for stationery. And they do not use trees.

  • 11:20:50

    BASBANESTree-free, that's what they...

  • 11:20:51

    REHMTree free.

  • 11:20:52

    BASBANESTree free.

  • 11:20:53

    REHMSo it's all from fabric.

  • 11:20:55

    BASBANESCotton and rags. It's actually -- you could describe it as 100 percent rag paper.

  • 11:21:02

    REHMAnd here's an email from Jack in Columbia, MO. Why do paper mills have such a bad odor?

  • 11:21:13

    BASBANESI don't think they all, but some do. And they add -- we were kind of driving to that before to that before the break. We were talking about the movement to trees which really happened in the middle of the 19th century when they really figured out the way to remove a compound that is in trees known as lignin. It's a compound that kind of fills up the spaces between the cells of the cellulose.

  • 11:21:35

    BASBANESAnd it had really befuddled people on how you could possibly extract from trees the fiber to make paper, when they finally figured out a way to do that. One of the ways to do it is with chemicals, unfortunately. And a lot of these chemicals don't smell very good. There's a community up in Maine that they call Stinkin' Lincoln, ME. They used to because it had these and it's not fair. But that was the reputation because it had these enormous paper mills up there that really didn't put out a very good odor.

  • 11:22:04

    BASBANESThey've been working on it. People are coming up with different recovery processes. But the answer was really because of the movement to the production of paper from trees.

  • 11:22:13

    REHMAnd Marianne in Grand Rapids, MI writes: I love paper. I don't think computers, smartphones and tablets will go away, but I think people are finding that while they serve some purposes well, people are also finding they are not the answer to everything.

  • 11:22:36

    BASBANESI think I can agree with that in principle. I'm often asked because it's such an obvious question and it's a question that cries out to be asked. Do I foresee the paperless society? I don't think so. I think certainly in terms of books and newspapers and recordkeeping in the government. I have chapters on all of these things. And we are moving towards electronic modes of preservation, but I also stop and I say to myself, this is the first time in human history where we need a mechanical device to read something.

  • 11:23:11

    BASBANESWe need software. Here, you can pick up a book and all you really need is the facility to handle the English language to engage with it, to read it. But when you're talking about computers, you're talking about 12-inch discs that no longer exist, 5-inch discs, 3-inch discs, various kinds of magnetic tape, punch cards. Can anybody access punch cards? Things that are being generated, too, now barring digital.

  • 11:23:36

    BASBANESWill people be able to read these things a hundred years from now? Two hundred years from now? I mean, I have held in my hands a Gutenberg Bible printed on exquisite paper in the 1450s. That's the passage of half a millennium. And it's just as beautiful today as it was when it was produced. Can you say that -- will you be able to say that 500 years from now about materials that are born digital?

  • 11:23:58

    REHMHere is a tweet from Carrie who argues the Egyptians invented paper thousands of years before the Chinese.

  • 11:24:10

    BASBANESWell, she's thinking papyrus. And papyrus is not paper, although paper does get its name from papyrus. That and the fact that they both have a vegetative source.

  • 11:24:20

    REHMWell, how is papyrus different from...

  • 11:24:24

    BASBANESWell, well, let's get to that. I mean, paper, as I explained earlier, is you reduce any vegetative source to fibers. You pound it. You beat it to a pulp. That's one of many paper clichés we deal with in the book. Papyrus, quite specifically, is made from a marsh reed that once grew in great abundance along the Nile River, predominantly in Egypt, but also in a few other areas.

  • 11:24:48

    BASBANESIt grew in parts of North Africa and Sicily. But they used this reed for everything in Ancient Egypt. But what they did do is -- it's a very tall plant. It's got a triangular base. And they would basically carve out sections of the marsh reed pounding into like almost like a veal cutler. And they would laminate it across at right angles to each other. So papyrus is a lamination of very specific vegetative product that only grew predominantly along the banks of the Nile.

  • 11:25:19

    BASBANESYou can only make it from fresh, freshly harvested stalks. So paper is not papyrus. That's the short answer.

  • 11:25:27

    REHMAnd Anthony asked: What is the difference between paper and papyrus and you just answered that questioned. You talk about Leonardo Da Vinci in the book and what is his connection to the growth and the intellectual excitement?

  • 11:25:52

    BASBANESAnd that kind of goes back to an earlier question of yours. I started with the history and I started with books. But I just said to myself, I am really captured by this whole concept of the idea of paper. And not just the obvious ones, for personal hygiene and for wrapping foods and for every manner of packaging, but also thinking on paper. Can we really demonstrate instances where really brilliant people, where it can be argued, paper was an essential medium for them to achieve their thoughts.

  • 11:26:25

    BASBANESTo give substance to these non-verbal images that they -- that were just teeming in their mind.

  • 11:26:32

    REHMWell, but we can think of those on the walls of caves, ancient caves as well long before paper.

  • 11:26:39

    BASBANESRight. And of course, paper is not the only medium. But paper, all of a sudden, became available in perfusion in Italy and in Europe during what we call the Renaissance. And Leonardo -- I mean, I asked Martin Kemp, the Oxford scholar who probably has spent more time with Leonardo's notebooks than anyone alive. Would this have been possible? Could he have done all of this, his prolific writing and drawing and doing three-dimensional representations?

  • 11:27:09

    BASBANESThis cascade of thought that he just poured out in these sheets of paper going, really, from one thing to another. And he thought about that. I said, did you -- was paper necessary? I said, I can't conceive of them of doing it without it. Leonardo is just one example in that chapter. I cited Beethoven, of course, and the sketchbooks and Thomas Edison, 3,500 notebooks. He used paper as a tool to realize his thoughts.

  • 11:27:36

    REHMSo are you arguing that, indeed, the transference of what's in the mind to paper helped to move the minds coming thereafter forward?

  • 11:27:53

    BASBANESI think the argument can be made. There are those undoubtedly who might dispute that and disagree with me. But notation, what we call notation, really does developed in the Arab world. They had a perfusion of paper. All of a sudden you had stuff to tinker on. You think about the development of architecture and engineering, so many brilliant ideas were drawn on the back of an envelope or a cocktail napkin or a matchbook or an envelope or whatever.

  • 11:28:20

    BASBANESWhatever is on hand, you have this flash of insight. You can't wait to get it down. You can't wait to transfer this visualization onto a flat piece of paper. And I just think the case can be made that it's more than coincidental.

  • 11:28:34

    REHMAll right, we're got lots of callers. I'm going to open the phones. First to Patricia in Moore, OK. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:28:47

    PATRICIAOh, thanks, Diane. How are you doing today?

  • 11:28:49

    REHMFine, thank you.

  • 11:28:51

    PATRICIAGreat. I like this topic. I just wanted to promote a product that I've seen -- I've only seen it at Walgreens. But it's 100 percent -- the name of the product is 100% Tree Free and the company name is Ology, just o-l-o-g-y. But their toiler paper and paper towels are made out of 100 percent renewable sugar cane and bamboo. And so I think that's a good, you know, thing to use. And then also I want to ask, can't we make paper from hemp?

  • 11:29:27

    BASBANESPaper has been made from hemp. Again, you can make paper from seaweed. You can make paper from crushed walnut shells. You can make paper from any vegetative source whether or not it's -- you can get ideal portions of cellulosic fiber out of it is another matter. But...

  • 11:29:45

    REHMBut sugarcane, you've heard of that being done?

  • 11:29:48

    BASBANESYou can -- it doesn't surprise me because you can make paper out of any vegetative source. What you have to have is cellulose. You reduce...

  • 11:29:56

    REHMWell, why do we keep cutting down trees then?

  • 11:29:58

    BASBANESWell, because -- that's a good question. But trees have been available in great, great, great, enormous abundance, it seemed limitless when they started back in the 19th century. It isn't such anymore. And a lot of these paper companies have committed themselves, as I understand it, to working with environmental organizations and to use things like sugarcane, I believe. I think that's Kimberly Clark...

  • 11:30:25

    REHMI hope your book propels more and more discussion about that.

  • 11:30:30

    BASBANESI hope so, absolutely.

  • 11:30:32

    REHMBecause cross-cutting and clearing...

  • 11:30:36

    BASBANESIt's horrible.

  • 11:30:37

    REHMIt's horrible.

  • 11:30:38


  • 11:30:38

    REHMFor the land and for the lost of trees.

  • 11:30:41

    BASBANESEspecially when you think that so much virgin -- what they call virgin fiber -- would be used, you know, the production of paper for hygienic purposes that really have a life span of seconds. You know, when you think that you're making something that really only...

  • 11:30:54

    REHMAnd when there is...

  • 11:30:54

    BASBANES...as a functionalized or whatever it is, you know.

  • 11:30:57

    REHMAnd there are so many alternatives available, it would seem that we ought to be thinking about something else. And here's a comment posted by Cecilia: As a bookbinder and papermaker artist, I believe paper is ingrained in our mind. After the boom of computers and, more recently, electronic book reading, some believed paper was going to disappear. I believe there is going to be a "renaissance" of the book, either by reading what it comes to express, or as an art object. I love paper and things made out of it. Lovely comment.

  • 11:31:49

    BASBANESLovely. And I couldn't agree more. I think paper will now -- the printed book will now be allowed to achieve its destiny as an artistic medium.

  • 11:31:58

    REHMNicholas Basbanes, his new book is titled, "On Paper." And we got lots of callers. Let's go now to Kalamazoo, MI. Hi, David.

  • 11:32:23

    DAVIDWell, good morning. I've been a stamp collector for about 50 years now and there's always been a rumor that in the 1800s, linen was imported from Egypt and was supposedly used -- they were taken from the wrappings from mummies and I was always wondering if that could ever be confirmed.

  • 11:32:42

    BASBANESI give you the citation in the book. It is confirmed. There was a period in the 1840s or so. Again, going back to the point about rags and the supply wasn't, you know, insufficient to meet the demand. And for a period, a short period, there were people who were bringing shiploads of linen wrappings from mummies from Egypt. Now, not all -- see, they...

  • 11:33:06


  • 11:33:08

    BASBANESAnd actually there was an outbreak of cholera, arguably attributed to that. It was...

  • 11:33:13

    REHMTo that process.

  • 11:33:14

    BASBANESTo that process.

  • 11:33:15

    REHMOh, my goodness.

  • 11:33:15

    BASBANESAnd it was not to make a very high grade of paper either. But there's a woman at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA who has documented this, who has documented the use of this particular source of fiber in at least four states.

  • 11:33:30

    DAVIDOh, my gosh.

  • 11:33:31

    BASBANESIt's in the book, by the way.

  • 11:33:33

    DAVIDThe other part of that story was that the mummies themselves were used to provide for the railroad in Egypt. They would burn them.

  • 11:33:41

    BASBANESWell, I can't speak to that. I don't know that.

  • 11:33:43


  • 11:33:43

    REHMAll right, David, thanks so much for your call. That's a fascinating piece of information. Let's go to Gabriel in Plano, TX. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:59

    GABRIELGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:34:01

    REHMHello. Go right ahead, sir.

  • 11:34:03

    GABRIELCan you hear me?

  • 11:34:03


  • 11:34:04

    GABRIELThank you. A (unintelligible) hello?

  • 11:34:12

    REHMYes, I can barely hear you, Gabriel.

  • 11:34:16

    GABRIELOkay. I hope it's better now.

  • 11:34:18

    REHMYes, much better. Thank you.

  • 11:34:20

    GABRIELYeah, when I started studying my master degree, I was an advocate to use everything but wood because, you know, they're cutting trees and I felt green and everything. But one of my teachers found that it's a lot better to use wood for all purposes because it can regenerate, it's regulated. And its -- it uses a lot less energy to be processed and recycled than plastic or steel. So I really -- I love paper too. Thank you.

  • 11:34:58

    REHMAll right. I want to hear what Nicholas Basbanes says.

  • 11:35:04

    BASBANESWe certainly can recycle paper. We have -- we put our office paper in these blue bins and have a little section in the book about this mill in New Jersey, the Marcal Plant, which uses 100 percent recycled paper to make toilet paper, a million rolls a day. One of the arguments against recycled paper for years, and I don't think it's a very good argument, that it might not be as soft as the paper that you might get with 3-ply paper made with virgin fiber.

  • 11:35:36

    BASBANESBut then they have processes that kind of fibrillate the fibers and give it the texture of softness and I think that's a great productive avenue for future use of paper, recycling it.

  • 11:35:48

    REHMBut what about plastics? He's saying...

  • 11:35:51

    BASBANESWell, I don't -- I mean, I can't...

  • 11:35:54

    REHMCan't get into that.

  • 11:35:56

    BASBANESIt's -- the book's about paper, not necessarily plastics, you know.

  • 11:35:59

    REHMAll right, let's go now quickly to Tammy. She's in Harrisburg, PA. You're on the air. I'm sorry, I can't hear you.

  • 11:36:13

    TAMMYCan you hear me now?

  • 11:36:14


  • 11:36:16

    TAMMYHow are you today, Diane?

  • 11:36:16

    REHMFine, thank you.

  • 11:36:18

    TAMMYFirst, I want to say I consider you the Vanity Fair of the radio. You are either right on topic or ahead of everything.

  • 11:36:26

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:36:27

    TAMMYI appreciate that. My question is, when the whole Nook book, Kindle, everything came out, I jumped in the bandwagon because I've always felt guilty about the trees, especially when I read through hundreds of books a year. I just go through them so fast.

  • 11:36:42


  • 11:36:43

    TAMMYNow, it turns out that actually by using my Barnes & Noble's coupons, the books, the actual books are cheaper than the eBooks and I don't understand why that is.

  • 11:36:55

    REHMWell, I'm not sure you're going to get an answer here. What do you think?

  • 11:36:59

    BASBANESI don't have an answer for that.

  • 11:37:00

    REHMHave no idea why they would be cheaper, maybe you ought to try another website. And we'll take a short break here. Nicholas Basbanes is with me. His new book, "On Paper: The Everything Of Its 2,000-Year History."

  • 11:40:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. Nicholas Basbanes is with me. His brand new book is titled, "On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History." Here's a wonderful question. It's a Tweet from Anthony. "Can you guest talk about how the art of making paper developed into the art of folding paper, Origami."

  • 11:40:35

    BASBANESOkay, I don't think that the art of making paper necessarily led to the art of Origami. Origami developed because of paper just the same way that printing developed because of paper. The first paper mill in Germany was 1390 and 60 years later Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press. There was paper. Origami developed, we believe in Japan, but it developed independently elsewhere around the world. But what it is essentially, and it's really wonderful, conceptually it's really wonderful. You take a single piece of paper, one piece of paper...

  • 11:41:09

    REHMSoft paper.

  • 11:41:11

    BASBANESSoft paper, but you can also use -- you talk to master papermakers they, and I have one profile in the book, Michael LaFosse who makes his own paper. So he'll make one kind of paper if he's doing a penguin and he'll make another kind of paper if he wants to simulate the wings of a bat, you know. So he'll make different textures of paper and we talk about that in the book.

  • 11:41:33

    BASBANESBut to get back to what Origami is it's one sheet of paper using no scissors, no glue, no string and you fold. You use your imagination. And the beauty of it, and one of the reasons I really wanted to write about it and to explore it in this book, it is one of those activities, kind of like book collecting in many respects, that you can do it at any level. I maintain you can collect books for 25 cents at yard sales and you can spend all the way up to $10 million, you know, if you have the wherewithal.

  • 11:42:02

    BASBANESOrigami is, sort of, the same thing. You begin it as a child. It's taught as part of kindergarten. Maria Montessori incorporated it, folding paper, in part of her curriculum there for young children, but I -- so I thought I would trace it. It's one of these activities that children learn and enjoy and practice productively and it goes all the way up to M.I.T. professors. I have -- Robert Lang, the laser physicist from CalTech who's a master Origami folder. And he actually uses computer programs to help him develop these folds, to do these extraordinary constructions out of single pieces of paper.

  • 11:42:45

    REHMGive me an example of one he's done.

  • 11:42:46

    BASBANESOh a fly dinosaur -- one of those birds which...

  • 11:42:50


  • 11:42:51

    BASBANES...A dancing crane or a beautiful turtle which I have pictured in the book, I think. Magnificent. He did a cuckoo clock which is -- from a large piece of paper which actually has a swinging pendulum. It has the face of -- of the hands. And he did all of this with one piece of paper so really to use paper as a computational tool. I write about Eric Demaine, one of the youngest MacArthur Fellows in the history of the MacArthur Fellowships who was the youngest professor ever named a full professor at M.I.T. and he also is a brilliant paper folder who uses paper in his courses, computational Origami. I went to several M.I.T. Origami classes -- they have an M.I.T...

  • 11:43:35

    REHMYou had fun doing this book.

  • 11:43:37

    BASBANESI had -- that's why I took eight years on the book.

  • 11:43:39

    REHMYeah, I can fully understand. And then Jeannette in Manchester, Mo. wants to know why Italian papers are considered so special.

  • 11:43:53

    BASBANESThere's a mill that I visited -- the Amaltrua (sp?) in Amalthea which is where paper really -- one of the places where paper really began in Europe. And this particular mill has been operated by the very same family for five or six hundred years. Italian paper I wouldn't say it's the world's standard, but it certainly is wonderful. There are other, you know, is it better than beautiful Japanese paper or beautiful French paper or beautiful Dutch paper? You know, I think you'd find an argument on all sides, but they have excellent technique. They use wonderful 100 percent rag fiber and they make exquisite paper.

  • 11:44:33

    REHMSo they're not cutting down trees to get their paper.

  • 11:44:35

    BASBANESOh, no, no, no, no, no, again, when we talk about handmade paper I don't think trees are really used at all in the formation of the stuff.

  • 11:44:44

    REHMIt's only in the mass production...

  • 11:44:46

    BASBANESThat's exactly right.

  • 11:44:46

    REHM...of paper like bond.

  • 11:44:48

    BASBANESAgain in that chapter I have rags to riches. And it really does go from rags to the harvesting of forests to make paper. And that really is what catapulted it into a major industry.

  • 11:44:59

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Steve in Mobile, Ala. He's got a different perspective. Hi, Steve.

  • 11:45:09

    STEVEHi, Diane, wonderful show, as always.

  • 11:45:11

    REHMThank you

  • 11:45:12

    STEVEMy grandfather was a paper mill superintendent for International Paper in Springfield prior to the labor disruptions that closed that mill, but -- so I've kind of grown up around the paper industry and I still have cousins that work there. And I noticed that, I want to say, the '90s, and I might be getting the time wrong, but there was a severe decline in international paper in, and what I understand from my cousins, it was essentially nationwide is the entire American paper industry -- that type of, you know, paper declined significantly and I've seen them close mills here in Mobile and (unintelligible) which a lot of your listeners are probably excited about because they use to use trees for paper and all that. Could you go into what caused this decline?

  • 11:45:54

    BASBANESI think a lot of this decline, and I discuss it in Chapter 17 of the book, which I call, "At the Crossroads." I profile a paper mill there in Pennsylvania, the Glatfelter Company, which since 1998 when their net sales, their gross sales were $569 million or so a year and recently they were $1.6 billion a year. So they actually advanced. So one of the things they did was diversify. We'll get into that, but International Paper their most recent annual report recorded sales of $26.2, I think it is, billion, an increase of $2 billion over the previous two years.

  • 11:46:34

    BASBANESAnd there's been a lot of contraction in the industry. I believe 120 or so paper mills have closed in the last 15 years or so. Two hundred and thirty or forty thousand people in North America have lost their jobs. A lot of this is due to the shift to electronic recordkeeping in the government and in industry. A lot of it has to do with the move towards electronic newspapers, largely the newspaper industry making newsprint. And we all know what's been going on with newspapers. And that has all had an impact and that is -- and these are largely the reasons why people project a paperless, what they call a paperless society.

  • 11:47:15

    BASBANESI argue that, you know, maybe in some areas there is certainly less usage, but when you consider that according to one reputable group of paper historians there are 20,000 verifiable commercial uses for paper in the world today I don't see paper disappearing any time soon.

  • 11:47:30

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Mark in Miami, Fla. He's got a different perspective. Hi, there, Mark.

  • 11:47:37

    MARKGood morning, Diane, thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:47:40


  • 11:47:40

    MARKA little background I own a software data architecture firm and it's funny that he just mentioned the usage of paper. That was my comment was our model is actually joining the paperless revolution. And I deal with people that ask me, you know, does that mean paper's going to go away? We love paper. I like paper. And what I try to tell them is that paper, as a distribution medium, and at a medium to enjoy is never going to go away.

  • 11:48:08

    MARKWhat the paperless revolution really is about is about how paper is a terrible medium for storage of information and that's what he just went into, the fact that records are no longer being stored on paper and that was a major use for paper. I live, breathe, technology and databases. Definitely I'm an advocate for the elimination of paper as a storage medium, but absolutely adore Origami and handmade paper. And I still, to this day, will not buy a single book that isn't printed on paper and will never read it if it's not printed on paper. And thank you for taking my comment. I appreciate the show.

  • 11:48:49

    BASBANESIt's a good comment, Mark, but I just couldn’t disagree with you more. I don't think that electronic preservation is superior to paper. And I think if you find -- if you talk to experts in the field paper is the superior medium. I mean we've been able to -- what we have to do is to be vigilant about the methods that we use for preserving our paper documents, but that's stable. I mean magnetic tapes aren't.

  • 11:49:12

    BASBANESAs I said earlier who's to say what kind of software or what kind of machine you're going to be using a hundred years from now to access -- to read this material and are you constantly going to have to be refreshing the medium of preservation as you will have to do with electronic media. So I respectfully disagree with you on that one.

  • 11:49:33

    REHMSo you see yourself as a champion of paper.

  • 11:49:38

    BASBANESI am absolutely a champion of paper, but I'm not a leadite, you know. I mean I read newspapers online in the morning. I still love my newspaper, but you can't beat the instant access you get to the news as it's breaking. I mean how can a printed paper keep up with that? But, yes, I love paper, particularly for books and for other artistic endeavors.

  • 11:50:03

    REHMNicholas Basbanes, his new book is titled, "On Paper." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And here is an email from Shanur in Lahore, Pakistan.

  • 11:50:24


  • 11:50:25

    REHMWriting, "I'm streaming the show in Lahore, Pakistan and wanted to ask your guest if he could briefly talk about how paper spread from China to the rest of the world. I've heard some rulers actually resisted introduction to paper in their respective societies."

  • 11:50:52

    BASBANESThat's a great question and I really do address that very question in part one of the book because the migration of paper is one of the great paper stories. As we talked earlier about its introduction in China, but then when you look at how it spread. It went from China -- it was really considered a proprietary craft there for several hundred years. But as the knowhow spread, mainly originally through Buddhist monks who went to Korea. It gets to Japan about the year 500 or so. That's going in that direction.

  • 11:51:24

    BASBANESAnd then it's also following the silk world trade routes. At the battle of Talas River, I believe it was in the year 751 -- we know the date. We know the date when it's the only time in history when the Chinese army was in conflict with an Arabic -- the Arabic world. The Arabic world won that battle and as a spoil of war they learned papermaking from prisoners. And Samarkand almost immediately became a center of papermaking in that part of the world. That's in Central Asia. It's in modern-day Kazakhstan. And then very quickly, very rapidly, the Arab world really became the center of papermaking and it remained so for 500 or so years.

  • 11:52:10

    REHMBut where was the resistance to paper coming from...

  • 11:52:14

    BASBANESAs paper starts to get into Europe and you, of course, this is the time of The Crusades and you had resistance and many Europeans regarded this as a product being produced by infidels, you know. And you actually had a ruler of Sicily who outlawed the use of paper for the recording of public documents. It was codified and you had also another ruler in Spain because Spain was another area that it was contested. It was part of the Muslim world for many hundreds of years.

  • 11:52:41

    REHMIt was considered revolutionary?

  • 11:52:44

    BASBANESWell, it was being -- it was something that was being brought to them. They didn't know that the Chinese invented it. I mean Sir Francis Bacon who really extolled the virtues of paper and those other three inventions I mentioned earlier, he had no idea that they were invented in China. We know today, of course, that they were, but the perception in Europe at that time among many people was that this was something that was being introduced by people they considered as their enemies.

  • 11:53:11

    REHMAll right, let's go to Daniel in Charlottesville, N.C., you're on the air.

  • 11:53:20

    DANIELHello, Diane, hello, Nicholas, nice to speak with you guys.

  • 11:53:25

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:53:25

    BASBANESThank you.

  • 11:53:25

    DANIELI had a question about, you know, the treelets or trees used in the paper that's being discussed rather negatively and I had a question about what percentage of paper was made from forestry versus paper made from farming. My family owns a farm and we do commercial wood for paper, but we grow it in a very sustainable way with a crop rotation and there are fields that we use exclusively for the production of wood for paper rather than -- you know, the same way we would use a field for hay or corn or any other crop.

  • 11:54:01

    BASBANESI appreciate the question because the earlier questions were almost suggesting that the use of wood for paper was being suggested in a negative sense. But there are many, many people who raise -- grow wood as you do and as your family does and as many suppliers of hardwood do today. They do it responsibly and they do it with an eye towards conserving of the land and to do it in a manner that's consistent with the environment and I applaud you for that.

  • 11:54:32

    REHMBut didn't some of the other large companies come along and really clear cut?

  • 11:54:40

    BASBANESThey did and part of the opposition to Kimberly-Clark a few years ago was a Greenpeace mobilization they called a Kleercut, with a K. You know, it was a playful -- not so playful, but a rather sarcastic play on the Kleenex product, but Kimberly-Clark absolutely fell into line and they agreed to, sort of, a formula for moving towards more responsible use of these environmental products.

  • 11:55:08

    REHMSo now what you're saying is that in this country you've got the large companies not only continuing to produce paper, in some cases by clear cutting, but that they are planting immediately thereafter...

  • 11:55:25

    BASBANESI don't think that they're necessarily -- they're not clear cutting virgin forests. They're raising it as agricultural products and I do believe there is some responsible movement to doing this. And, again, I'm not -- I'm, by no means, a spokesman or an apologist for any industry. I'm a journalist and a writer and I'm writing a history of paper so -- but I -- from what I see I do believe that there has been a sufficient and a very vocal body of opposition in trying to get this done responsibly and with an eye towards conservation.

  • 11:55:57

    REHMAll right. Let's take one last call from Barbara in Durham, N.C., you're on the air very quickly please.

  • 11:56:05

    BARBARAYes, thanks for taking my call. I'm an artist and I'm sitting here working on a piece of Arches watercolor paper...

  • 11:56:16


  • 11:56:17

    BARBARA...Listening to this discussion and, of course, this is a pure cotton paper.

  • 11:56:23

    BASBANESThat's right.

  • 11:56:23

    BARBARAArtists have been using it for many, many years. And I just wonder if the gentleman has looked into -- I mean it sounded as though the process that they use is exactly what the Chinese were using.

  • 11:56:41

    BASBANESIt is. Well, Arches is a very well known famous, what they call, mold-made paper. So it's kind of halfway between handmade paper and mechanical paper with the Ford Rainier (sp?) machines. It's a mold because random disbursement of the fibers -- and it really looks and feels like handmade paper. It's exquisite stuff.

  • 11:57:00

    REHMI'm glad we ended on that word, exquisite. The book is titled, "On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History." Nicholas Basbanes, thank you for being here.

  • 11:57:15

    BASBANESThank you, Diane.

  • 11:57:17

    REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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