Lasting Imprint

A page of exercises from a Vere Foster copybook, first published in 1865.

In the town of Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, set among hills and dairy farms two hours’ drive from Washington, DC, a sulfurous odor hangs in the air. It smells like ten thousand vats of cooking cabbage. It permeates everything.

This is the not-so-sweet smell of paper. Spring Grove is home to one of the Glatfelter company’s paper mills. A fully integrated operation, the mill ingests “roundwood”—logs, trucked in from a radius of a hundred miles or so—and wood chips, stews them with heat and chemicals, pulps them, and pours the resulting slurry into enormous papermaking machines that drain, press, dry, and roll the pulp.

When I toured the mill recently, people told me you get used to the smell. We certainly take the end product for granted. For all the blithe talk about “the digital age,” we’re as addicted to paper as ever. Every Starbucks cup, Post-it note, and printed-out e-mail, every receipt stuffed in a wallet, that disorderly stack of mail on my desk—it all testifies to the persistence of the habit. Glatfelter’s slogan, “Beyond Paper,” suggests a world that’s almost done with wood pulp, but we are in fact still “paper people,” Ian Sansom writes in his “elegy” to the stuff.

Elegy is actually not the right word for this pulpy romp through paper’s material past and present. Not quite a history, Paper feels more like a commonplace book, one of those predigital scrapbooks of items jotted down for future reference. Sansom, a British novelist and critic who writes the Mobile Library mystery series, is a magpie collector of shiny bits of information—“mammocks,” he’d probably call them, citing the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word as “a scrap, shred, broken or torn piece.”

So, quickly, a glimpse of some of Sansom’s historical scraps, served up in chapters on manufacturing, cartography, bibliomania, currency, advertising, Henri Matisse’s cutouts, and more. The Chinese get credit for inventing paper two thousand years ago. The first factory producing the stuff opened in Baghdad circa 793–94. The oldest known example of wallpaper in England dates back to 1509. Dickens’s job in that infamous boot-blacking warehouse was to paste labels on jars. When telling stories, Hans Christian Andersen “would simultaneously cut out paper figures to illustrate what he was saying, a kind of paper performance art,” Sansom writes.

If anything connects this stream of historical cameos and musings on materiality, it’s the idea that paper persists. It lurks in the midst of modernity. Behind every computer-enabled feature produced by the Pixar studios hide storyboards, drawn by actual artists on actual paper. The animated feature Ratatouille (2007) used seventy-two thousand of them, according to Sansom. “No signs of a paperless office at Pixar,” he says. Nor, it’s safe to say, at most of our workplaces. One way or another, the average American goes through about 750 pounds of paper a year, according to Sansom, although, frustratingly, he does not cite a source. (Paper also lacks an index, which would have been handy in a book that traffics in so much elusive historical detail.)

Digital devices haven’t killed paper as comforting principle, either. A Kindle page still looks a lot like a codex page. A curious paradox of the digital age is that every time Tech Giant X kicks out a shiny new gizmo, there’s a corresponding temptation for the public to wax nostalgic about paper, and to turn it into a fetish object. Apple products may excel at sleekness and frictionless digital performance, but nothing says you’re arty like a Moleskine notebook or a packet of letterpress note cards. Sansom’s book itself—“printed on Fedrigoni Edizioni Cream, 100 gsm, composed of a mix of FSC hardwood and softwood fibers (origins: Austria, France, and Brazil)”—is a reminder of paper’s tactile pleasure, its pages substantial under the fingers. It’s such a satisfying object that I hated to mark it up as I read.

No matter how nice the end result, the paper that’s turned into books or loaded into copy machines has a harsh birth. Chop down a tree; pulp it; subject it to chemicals and heat and pressure; cut it to size; ship it out. That’s been the way since the Industrial Revolution. In one of the more substantial sections of the book, Sansom revisits the creation of the first truly automated paper machine. A direct ancestor of the giants that still run round the clock at the Glatfelter plant, this heavy-duty wonder was the brainchild of a Frenchman named Louis-Nicolas Robert. Born in 1761, the inventive Robert convinced a family of wealthy London stationers that automated machines were more reliable than mill workers. “The first improved Fourdrinier machine was set up at Frogmore Mill in Hertfordshire in 1803, and remains the effective template for all modern paper machines,” Sansom writes.

In Spring Grove, the Glatfelter plant still runs a machine that went into operation in 1880. It is awesome (in the Old Testament sense) to behold, bigger than many rooms, throwing off noise and heat and water as it presses and dries and spins off endless sheets. Here is the material fact, hot and loud and messy. Once you see such a thing in operation, you treat a ream of paper with new respect.

Sansom doesn’t pay much attention to the most obvious thing to do with paper—write on it. He leaves that to Philip Hensher, another British novelist and critic with a taste for neglected morsels of history. In The Missing Ink, Hensher unearths some of the sadistic, stylish, and occasionally sympathetic attempts to teach penmanship to generations of reluctant European and American children.

Hensher remembers longing as a child to master the secret of “joined-up” writing. Many of us recall hours spent torturing letters into shape on dotted-line writing paper. Communication was supposedly the goal of handwriting instructors through the ages, but often, as he says, “the real aim was control.” Write as we tell you to write, children, no matter how much it hurts; civilization depends on it.

So the American Platt Rogers Spencer, born in 1800, spread the gospel of copperplate, a formally loopy style based on engraving. (If you can’t quite visualize copperplate, Hensher suggests the Coca-Cola label as an example.) Spencer created a handwriting empire of “schools and disciples, propagating the practice of copperplate in brutally effective ways, through drills, routines, handwriting exercises of an almost military precision.” He made a fortune in the process.

A hundred years later, operating at the kinder and gentler end of the instructional spectrum, Marion Richardson came up with a child-friendly program that “aims towards a free cursive handwriting” and—in a flourish of progressive pedagogy—encourages students to experiment with letter forms and patterns. “Her style is generous and broad, and throughout stresses what is easy to write, and a pleasure, and what is easy to read,” Hensher writes. If my early handwriting instructors had adopted that attitude, I might still be dashing off notes by hand instead of by Gmail.

Or would I? Handwriting has been going to hell in a handbasket for a long time, and Hensher is not afraid to lament it. “This book has been written at a moment when, it seems, handwriting is about to vanish from our lives altogether.” Personal experience supports this gloomy assessment. My stepfather, who died this year at the age of eighty-three, had a reputation for having a lovely, clear hand. I can’t think of anyone middle-aged or younger who’s admired for fine penmanship. Good handwriting now occupies the same niche as, say, crocheting—nice if you can do it, but hardly essential to success in life. Many people claim not to be able to read their own handwriting anymore. Except for the occasional handwritten birthday card or sympathy note, they don’t ask other people to read it, either.

This makes Hensher understandably sad. He’s right that text generated on a computer doesn’t carry the same character of words set down with a fountain pen or a drugstore Bic. I can’t tell you what my handwriting says about me—nothing good, probably. Hensher has a good time debunking the science of graphology, or handwriting analysis, and the idea that a fine hand equals a fine character. Whatever you want to say about my penmanship, though, it’s recognizably and undeniably mine. And if I know you at all well, I will know at a glance that you sent me that now-rare postcard.

“Handwriting is what registers our individuality, and the mark which our culture has made on us,” Hensher writes. Personal computers, by contrast, really aren’t all that personal. “At some point, the ordinary pleasures and dignity of handwriting are going to be replaced permanently,” he worries. “What is going to replace them is a man in a well-connected electric room, waving frantically at a screen and saying, to nobody in particular, ‘Why won’t this effing thing work?’”

To be addicted to technology is not to love it. Gazing into tiny screens as if trying to read the future, we urbanites commonly take our lives into our hands along with our smartphones, equally oblivious to hazards and passing delights. Digital devices, as Hensher observes, are mesmerizing but chilly. “Technologies are either warm or cold, either attached to us with their own personalities, or simple, dead, replaceable tools to be picked up and discarded,” he writes. “The pen has been with us for so many millennia that it seems not just warm but almost alive, like another finger.”

A pen has charisma, a qwerty keyboard or an iPhone not so much. So if we’re to resist losing ourselves entirely in the glow of our machines, perhaps the solution lies in the simple ritual that’s kept writers going for centuries: a pen in hand, and a blank sheet of paper at the elbow.

Jennifer Howard, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, writes about publishing, libraries, and the humanities.