The Most Influential Invention

Abelardo Morell/Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York
Abelardo Morell: Two Open Books: Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens, 2000

In his 1964 essay “Civilized Man,” lamenting the growing standardization of culture across the globe, the Romanian-French writer Emil Cioran first reassures readers he is not proposing protection for the world’s dwindling numbers of cannibals, but he then steps up to defend “illiterates” who are being “tyrannized,” he claims, “with a virulence that is quite unjustified.” “Is it an evil,” Cioran asks, “not to know how to read and write? In all frankness I cannot think so. Rather I believe that when the last illiterate has vanished from the earth, we can go in mourning for man.”

Lothar Müller’s book White Magic is a study of the invention that more than any other made possible the universal drive for literacy and standardization: paper. And as Müller shows, from the earliest times, every advance in the technologies for producing paper and covering it with words, signs, and images always brought with it the fear that what had been created might prove more a monster than a convenience. “The evils that paper caused in various phases of the [French] Revolution,” wrote Louis-Sébastien Mercier, describing the vast increase in newspaper publication in revolutionary Paris, “are such that one might wish it had never been invented.”

In the nineteenth century, Carlyle, Dickens, and Balzac all saw civilization sinking under the weight of a vast overproduction of paper and the bureaucracy and journalism that went with it. Melville feared the very whiteness and blankness of modern, mass-produced paper in much the same way he feared the whiteness of the whale. The mind’s appetite for a space it can fill, our apparent inability to resist the invitation of the empty page, determine a process that finally leads to the electronic screen I am typing into now, a writing space that is both the apotheosis and the overcoming of the paper page. It is impossible to tell the story of civilization without it.

The tale begins innocently enough in China with pulped mulberry plants spread on cotton stretched across a wooden frame. Built up in layers, the pulp hardened into sheets that could, among other uses, be written on. Exactly who originally had this idea we do not know, but in 105 AD a court official persuaded the Chinese emperor to adopt paper on a large scale for public records. It was cheaper than parchment, which was made from animal skins. Used for a variety of purposes—windows, lanterns, artificial flowers, fans, umbrellas, packaging—the invention traveled west along the trade routes, notably the Silk Road, until by the ninth century the Arabs were producing paper that was cheap enough to replace the hitherto dominant papyrus, a paper-like product made by gluing together strips of material from the papyrus plant, then smoothing the resulting surface for writing. It was “an early…

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