Ian Sansom’s entertaining elegy to paper in many of its forms begins and ends by letting us know what it is not: this is not a history of paper, not a history of the book, not a history of writing, ‘nor is it a book on paper-making’; there is ‘no decoupage; no exam papers; no musical scores; no Top Trumps’. Paper is not a book that will attempt ‘to register, to measure, to account for, to classify, authorise, endorse and generally tot up, gee up and make good… a full history of all the paper in just one life on just one day’. What this is is ‘a technological and material history’, ‘a personally curated Paper Museum’ – in other words, a collection of ever so erudite, witty, chucklesome essays, rich with digressions and asides, on paper, in many of its guises, that seeks to refute – and does refute – the idea that we are moving towards a paperless world.
And so – we learn how paper is made (it hasn’t changed significantly in two thousand years), how map-making developed, and why currency is made of paper, that also takes in how advertising in all its forms has been irritating people since the 19th century, its role in architecture, art and wallpaper, why origami isn’t necessarily an ancient Japanese art, how it creates you as an individual via your passport and your legitimationspapiere, before climaxing with ruminations on paper and film, paper and clothes, paper and smoking and paper and religion and ritual. It’s a busy old book is what we’re saying and the product of at least one tree itself, or so Sansom informs us at any rate. But, of course, each of these various strands are but jumping off points for all manner of enthusiastic effluvia on topics as diverse as 18th century paper robbers, Rabelais’ views on toilet paper, how hospital stays led Matisse to take up the brush and, much later, take to a second career cutting paper, various legends concerning who was responsible for the creation of playing cards and a short piece on ‘the most famous piece of paper in twentieth century history’ (I’ll give you a clue: it’s the letter in which Hitler claims he has no interest in going to war).
But even this dip below the surface of what each section is about and contains doesn’t really do justice to what reading Paper is like. Imagine you’re holding a dinner party and the quiet unassuming bearded man at the back that you seated towards the end of the table is actually the most interesting man you’ve ever met, despite the fact that he appears to be wearing a cardigan with a hole in the elbow. He is a man who can tell stories. More than that, he is a man who has a way with telling stories. So the stories are interesting, make no mistake; but he also, crucially, has a way with the telling of each tale, a delivery akin to the best stand-up comedian. One minute he has you howling with laughter, the next you’re sitting forward in your seat, nodding and saying to the person on your immediate right, I did not know that. Pick any page at random, you’ll see ‘a notorious elite army of a thousand men who were equipped with armour made of thick layers of paper’ (p173), or learn how paper-making started somwhere east of Samarkand in the 8th century, or hear from ‘a gambler, murderer and mathematical genius’ who ‘influenced for better or worse the future of Western finance’ (p64). I could go on. And Sansom does but I’ll guarantee you, you’ll be lapping up his every word.
Any Cop?: Paper is a marvel, a veritable paper palace of pleasure, an occasionally hilarious, always illuminating almanac of erudition. Sansom will have you lifting your eyebrows and chuckling at his use of the word ‘Anyway’ within a single paragraph. Highly recommended.