Chasing Paper


If the Internet has revolutionized communication as thoroughly as most of us believe, one of its by-products is likely to be nostalgia—a longing for a past when messages came on paper. Texting and e-mailing have cut us off from what once composed the material substratum of communication. Contrary to common belief, cyberspace is not like outer space—that is, empty. It is composed of cables and servers, not of clouds. But there is an immaterial eeriness to texting and e-mailing, at least for those of us who are not digital natives. We may enjoy the tactile compactness of smart phones and the bright glow of computer screens, but the messages we exchange seem to be disembodied—words that come and go across the screens without being attached to anything solid. The uneasiness produced by reading disembodied words can be taken as an opportunity to reassess the experience of dealing with words on paper.

Sensitivity to paper never died out in countries like Korea and Japan, but industrialization killed off a paper consciousness that once existed in the West. Prospectuses for books in the eighteenth century served as samplers for the paper on which the books were printed. They contained sales talk such as “manufactured from the very best paper of Angoulême” and “papier d’Hollande.” Printers spent half or more of their production costs on paper, and they bargained endlessly with their suppliers, haggling over qualities such as whiteness, weight, elasticity, and sizing—or the selection of rags that went into it in the first place. Advertisements for books stressed the same themes, along with the excellence of the type.

In the publicity campaign for his edition of Voltaire, Beaumarchais emphasized the physical qualities of the books—the beauty of the specially commissioned font of Baskerville type used in the superb presses at Kehl—almost as much as their contents. When we think of customers in the bookshops of old-regime Europe, we should imagine them sampling the wares like wines, studying their appellation contrôlée (“avec approbation et privilège du roi” on the title page indicated a legal work; “à Cologne chez Pierre du Marteau” signified illegality), inspecting the register (the alignment of lines on both sides of a leaf), assessing the blackness of the ink (beware of tar in the lampblack), holding the paper up to the light, and savoring its touch.

The same sensitivity prevailed in handwritten communication. Supplicants and subordinates often began halfway down the page when they petitioned superiors for favors, because the extravagant waste of a valuable commodity served as a sign of deference. Clerks divided pages vertically: the right half for the memorandum, the left half for a superior’s comments on it. The trimming of the quill pens, the preparation of the ink, the quality of the handwriting, and the design stamped on the wax seal all contributed to the import of the letters. Common expressions such as the French “Je vous écris…

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