On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History sometimes feels like grandma’s overstuffed attic, as the author moves from how paper is made (my favorite part of the book) to how it changed law, research, and hygiene. Of course the stance is that paper changed everything, and of course this is an exaggeration. So when the author claims that intelligence agencies rely on paper to achieve their goals, it’s really the other way round: that paper has been so important historically that spies have needed to become paper experts. Today, they are investing in storage systems and search algorithms instead.
The book is stuffed with an abundance of interesting and amusing anecdotes, including the diagram filed with the patent for toilet paper (looking very, very familiar), techniques to restore 17th century books that involve using a special Japanese tissue paper a picture of a Zimbabwean banknote that manages to squeeze in 14 zeros (trillions worth of worthless currency), and mind-blowing origami. At the same time, there are tedious, flawed recitations of the central importance of paper and an infelicitous ending featuring placing paper at the center of the September 11th World Trade Center collapse. I suggest skipping the epilogue.