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On Paper summary

Nicholas A. Basbanes

The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History

4.5 (22 ratings)
18 mins

Brief summary

On Paper is a celebration of all things paper - its history, production, and enduring impact on civilization. Nicholas A. Basbanes' book is an ode to this simple yet powerful material that has shaped the world we live in.

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    On Paper
    Summary of 9 key ideas

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    Key idea 1 of 9

    Paper, a dried composite of water and cellulose, was developed in China.

    We rarely pause to remember that paper once revolutionized the world. But where does paper come from?

    Most historians consider paper to have been developed in China in AD 105 by Cai Lun, a man who created tools and weapons for the royal court of Emperor Ho Ti. There is some dispute, however. Historian Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin argues that fragments found in 1957 in an ancient Chinese tomb are the oldest known pieces of paper – they date back to 140 BC. These specimens, along with others found in different locations in the region, suggest that paper changed over time.

    So what exactly is paper? Paper is made from a mixture of water and bits of pulverized cellulose that are sieved and dried. The cellulose can be made from tree bark, old fishing nets, cloth, hemp from rope, cooked straw, boiled banana peels, crushed walnut shells or a number of other materials. In short, paper is made using a screen mold by combining water with any material containing cellulose fiber.

    The process whereby cellulose fibers attach to each other through molecular cohesion is called hydrogen bonding. This bonding is what makes paper different from papyrus, though the word “paper” comes from papyrus.

    Papyrus is made from dried pieces of stalk from the papyrus plant, a marsh reed. These bits of stalk can be attached to one another because of chemicals released by the plant.

    Paper arrived in China at just the right time. Alternatives to paper, like silk and stone, were inconvenient because they were either too expensive or too cumbersome.

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    What is On Paper about?

    Paper: we use it so much we don’t realize how fundamental it is to our society. We don’t just record our thoughts on it, we base our currency on it, use it for entertainment and employ it for hygiene. These blinks of On Paper (2013) outline the history of this simple but amazing tool.

    On Paper Review

    On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History (2014) explores the fascinating evolution and enduring significance of paper as a medium for communication and creativity. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • With meticulous research and extensive anecdotes, it chronicles the rich history of paper, revealing its impact on technology, art, and culture.
    • Through exploring the stories of innovators and revolutionaries, the book highlights how paper has shaped societies and transformed the way we exchange ideas.
    • By examining the intricate craftsmanship and diverse applications of paper, it sheds light on the artistry and versatility of this seemingly ordinary material.

    Best quote from On Paper

    By the production of a cheap writing material, and its supply to markets both east and west, the Arabs made learning accessible to all.– Alfred von Kremer

    —Nicholas A. Basbanes
    example alt text

    Who should read On Paper?

    • Students of history, sociology or politics
    • Anyone who has ever used toilet paper
    • Origami fans

    About the Author

    Nicholas Basbanes is a former literary editor of the Worcester Sunday Telegram. He’s written several books, including A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, and his work has been featured in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

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    On Paper FAQs 

    What is the main message of On Paper?

    On Paper explores the history and significance of paper, highlighting its enduring role in human civilization.

    How long does it take to read On Paper?

    The reading time for On Paper varies. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just a few minutes.

    Is On Paper a good book? Is it worth reading?

    On Paper is a captivating read that sheds light on the often-overlooked medium of paper. It provides fascinating insights into its impact on human society throughout history.

    Who is the author of On Paper?

    Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of On Paper.

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