Paper: An Elegy

In his new book, author Ian Sansom explores the history of paper – and gives a talk on the subject at PRONI on October 30 for the Belfast Festival at Queen's

In 2002 I published a non-fiction book about babies, The Truth About Babies (Granta), that wasn’t really a book about babies at all, but really a book about... well, everything. Ten years on, I’ve published a book about paper that isn’t just a book about paper, but rather a book about... everything, again.

Paper: An Elegy (Fourth Estate, published October 25, 2012) is an attempt to study and understand the world’s most ubiquitous, versatile and beautiful man-made material in all of its many forms and guises.

That includes accordion pleats, bandages, bank cheques and ledgers, banners and bunting, board games, book marks and business cards, cartons and packaging, menus, bills of fare and cash register receipts, charts (nautical, medical, educational and otherwise).

It also takes in cigarette papers, paper clothes (including suits, hats, shirts, overcoats, overalls and coveralls), paper coffins and confetti, coupons, tickets and toilet requisites, construction and tracing paper, election ballot papers, emery boards and envelopes, filters and gauzes (medical, industrial and culinary), greeting cards and post cards, hospital gowns and surgical masks, paper insulation, paper kites, paper carpets, paper laminates and lamp shades...

... library cards, identity cards and passports, magazines, catalogues and newspapers, maps and globes, paper bags, paper cups, paper dolls, paper flowers, paper money, paper pipes, playing cards, postage stamps and posters, prescriptions, puzzles, report cards and registers, sandpaper, shipping containers, shoe boxes, stationery, stickers, streamers, tags and labels, tea bags, telephone directories, wallpaper, wrapping paper. The list goes on.

My interest in paper probably began with my interest in origami – the art and craft of paperfolding. In my youth there used to be a programme on television presented by a man named Robert Harbin, a South African stage magician who looked like a cross between Robert Robinson and Isaiah Berlin.

The programme was called, simply, Origami, and Harbin would just sit and stare at the camera and talk you through how to make a paper model – a little box, perhaps, or a windmill – and I loved that programme.

I loved its simplicity and its calm, and also its mad ambition and the incredible world of possibilities that it suggested. Because in origami you learn first to make a base – the bird base, or the frog base – and from this base you can build any number of shapes and models, constructing worlds from simple folds and creases.

In the same way, I came to realise, paper has been the base and the foundation of the folds and creases of the history of mankind. Our economy, our art, our wars and our attempts to make peace have all been conducted by means of paper.

As soon as we are born, paper attaches itself to us and becomes a kind of artificial skin. And when we die, what survives of us are those same sheets and tatters. Everything we are is paper. Everything I have become is because of paper. And yet this most ubiquitous of products is so familiar, so ordinary and so obvious that we have failed to recognise its significance. It is an artifact almost without an official history.

Paper: An Elegy, I suppose, is a small attempt to provide that history, or at least a part of that history. It's a history of paper that attempts to show how and why humans became attached to paper and how in turn it became engrafted into our very being.

It’s interesting that as we enter a world beyond paper, paper nonetheless remains – the ghost in the machine. As we begin to feel nostalgia for paper – for the thickness and weight of old writing paper, for the fading traces of the past – so simultaneously we embrace technologies that resemble it more and more: the iPad as a jotter; the Kindle as a book; the mobile phone a pocket-diary.

Paper: An Elegy, then, is partly a technological and material history, but also a history of symbols and ideas, of how paper became sacred and special, and of how a thing that might simultaneously be priceless and also a matter of mere waste came to define our lives and our history. It is the story of The Age of Paper.

Ian Sansom gives a talk entitled The Paper Museum at PRONI ON Tuesday, October 30 as part of the 2012 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, which continues until November 4.