Paper: Paging Through History

From Amazon: 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. One has only to look at history’s greatest press run, which produced 6.5 billion copies of Máo zhuxí yulu, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Zedong)—which doesn’t include editions in 37 foreign languages and in braille—to appreciate the range and influence of a single publication, in paper. Or take the fact that one of history’s most revered artists, Leonardo da Vinci, left behind only 15 paintings but 4,000 works on paper. And though the colonies were at the time calling for a boycott of all British goods, the one exception they made speaks to the essentiality of the material; they penned the Declaration of Independence on British paper. Now, amid discussion of "going paperless"—and as speculation about the effects of a digitally dependent society grows rampant—we’ve come to a world-historic juncture. Thousands of years ago, Socrates and Plato warned that written language would be the end of "true knowledge," replacing the need to exercise memory and think through complex questions. Similar arguments were made about the switch from handwritten to printed books, and today about the role of computer technology. 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.
Year of Publication
W.W. Norton & Company
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The Paper Cycle: Innovations and the Arts

Field of Interest/Specialty: Art & Social Studies
Posted On: 07/14/2016

In my search for making more interdisciplinary connections between all of my classes, I stumbled upon a goldmine in Mark Kurlansky’s latest book, Paper: Paging Through History. By tracing the history of paper from its early state as bits of bark and recycled rags to the present day demands for paper in a digital age, Kurlansky presents a very well-organized and entertaining look at the evolution of something so simple and yet dynamically diverse that you can’t resist reading on to see what he uncovers in the next chapter.
While this entire book is a trivia buff’s paradise, I will be focusing on the use of three chapters specifically to teach about the role of inventions, commerce, and the arts in East Asia-- Chapter 2: The Moths that Circle the Chinese Candle, Chapter 6: Making Words Soar, and Chapter 18: Return to Asia. In our STEAM-heavy school environment, Kurlansky has provided an abundance of information that can be used by the history teacher, the science teacher, the art teacher, and even the math and language arts teachers. From a detailed description of the geography and ideas that gave birth to various versions of paper to the engineering and science behind its production (chemical equations included!), the story unfolds to present a number of story problem scenarios and the biographies of interesting characters, all the while discussing the economic, social, political, and artistic impact of paper on East Asia and the world.
It amazes me that something so simple as paper could be so interesting as to hold my attention for hundreds of pages! I am excited to use excerpts for investigations in my art history class, and I plan on adding teaching resources to this review once those activities are tested in class. Some of the standard topics I plan on using from this book include the development of Chinese calligraphy and Japanese ukiyo-e prints, while the more unique stories I plan on sharing include the relationship between China’s invention of the compass and the increased demand for paper to make navigation charts and Japan’s use of paper balloons in World War II. Anyone who enjoys Jared Diamond’ method of storytelling is sure to enjoy Mark Kurlansky’s method of weaving a tale so entertaining that I believe even my students will find reading segments of this work enjoyable.