Book Review: The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of the World’s Greatest Invention, by Alexander Munro

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_paper_trail

It is highly unlikely that you are reading this review on a piece of paper held in your hand. And yet, it was the invention of paper that enabled mass communication and exchange of information quickly and effectively.

Now we have the internet rapidly replacing the likes of the daily newspaper, but this book casts a thought back to where it all began. First produced over 2000 years ago in China, paper very quickly replaced bamboo as a writing surface and from then on was unstoppable in its spread throughout eastern civilisation.

But it wasn’t until 1000 years later that paper made its way in a westerly direction to what is now Iran, Iraq, then Turkey to Europe.

The movement and development of paper has been integral to the history of these regions over the last 2000 years. As a form of storing religious texts, whether they be Buddhist, as in the early centuries of paper use in China; the Koran or the Bible; as a means of distributing religious messages amongst the populace as seen in the work of Martin Luther in the 1500s, looking for an alternative to the Catholic Church, or as fuel to the French Revolution in the late 18th century. Paper has been at the centre of it all.

Even New Zealand’s very own Treaty of Waitangi has two pages in this book devoted to it. Apparently the Treaty was a very rare type of document in British imperial history, in that it was a bilingual document − Maori and English – drawn up for both sides to sign. Although as we now know, the two versions actually had two different meanings. For all that, it is considered remarkable for its time, as it attempted to come to a political settlement without going to war. The author also points out that when the Treaty was signed in 1840, the Māori had only had around 20 years of exposure to the written word, their entire means of communicating and passing on history up to that time being oral in nature.

This research undertaken for this book by the author is mind-boggling. The author has studied Chinese and lived for a time in Beijing, so it is hardly surprising that half of this book is about the invention, development and spread of paper in China, Eastern and Central Asia − the first 1000 years of paper’s history. I am not entirely sure how one makes 1000 years of paper making interesting and riveting, and I think the author also struggled − at times, I found myself nodding off. The second 1000 years is easier to digest as it has much more relevance to history that we already know about.

There has been a trend in recent years for non-fiction writers to undertake histories of items/inventions that have been crucial to the development of the world we know and live in, and write about it in a way that makes it accessible to the average reader, E=mc2 by David Bodanis being a great example. In this book, however, the detail and minutiae of his subject is at times overwhelming, to the extent that I felt the thread of many of his stories was getting lost.

My biggest criticism − the almost total lack of illustrations. In a book of 368 pages there are only seventeen illustrations. I don’t understand how a book about paper and it’s place in modern history can only have seventeen, low quality illustrations. There is whole chapter devoted to the Renaissance and the use of paper in the creation of some of the beautiful art works from that time. Any illustrations from this time? No. Any pictures of some of the beautifully and crafted Bibles of the Middle Ages? No. Or the copies of the Koran produced by the Islamic Caliphate? No. I kept wanting to see pictures of what the author was writing about.

This was disappointing for a book with so much research and information in it.

But if you have the time and want to know where paper, the development of script, binding, typography, the printing press, the concept of reading, and the disbursement of knowledge sprang from, then you will get a lot out of reading this book.

by Felicity Murray

The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of the World’s Greatest Invention
by Alexander Munro
Published by Allen Lane
ISBN 9781846141898