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 example,” Müller remarks, “of the pattern underlying paper’s rise to prominence. Paper stepped in as a substitute in established economic and cultural functions and then stimulated further demand for itself by proving its capabilities.” This capacity “to stimulate further demand” is one of the most remarkable aspects of paper’s history.

At this point much of the demand for paper came from government administration, the legal system, and trade. While ink could be wiped off papyrus and scratched off parchment, it was more difficult to alter and falsify a paper document. In the short term, then, paper was more reliable though not as durable as parchment, which continued to be used where it was important that a written record last for generations. Each step forward in paper production, Müller shows, didn’t so much eliminate the materials that came before it as consign them to specific roles in a market that would grow ever more variegated as the centuries passed. The essential criteria governing their use, however, have remained the same throughout: durability, lightness or transportability, response to ink, cost, and appearance. Data that had to stay still for centuries required a different medium from data that would be attached to a pigeon’s leg and launched into the air.

Before paper could satisfy all the demands being made of it and march onward to Europe, the Arabs had to solve one crucial problem: they had no mulberry plants. Some other raw material had to be found. The Chinese had already developed a technique of using small quantities of pulped rags together with the mulberry. The Arabs now found ways of making their paper entirely with rags, and indeed paper would continue to be made this way right up until the late nineteenth century in a process of recycling that linked the textile and paper trades, created work for considerable numbers of rag gatherers and rag washers, and located paper production in the big cities near the product’s main clients. It also led to a perception of paper as a territory of metamorphosis, a pure white product produced from filthy old clothes on which, or with which, new things could be created. “Through hard work, old rags/Are given new life, beautiful and white,” begins a German poem from the seventeenth century:


Shall you remain contemptible, my heart?
Emerge from the old state of sin,
New and pure, that God’s hand
May write His will on thee.

Aside, then, from the many other uses to which paper was put and which Müller never allows us to forget—toilet paper was already being produced in the 700s—it soon became possible to write down far more than had ever been written before. Unlimited copies of the Koran could be made. The Islamic empire of the 700s and 800s could translate into Arabic and copy all of Greek science and philosophy. Messages could be sent that didn’t rely on a messenger’s good memory; indeed, the messenger could be kept from knowing the content of the message. Secrecy was easier. More and more people began keeping records of the past, getting used to the idea that information and ideas could be stored outside the head, creating an impression of continuity of identity across time.

On the more immediately practical level, handwriting could be used to establish a person’s identity, a fact that introduced the possibility of using paper to guarantee credit. Soon enough a merchant’s letter could become a check, allowing payment without the dangerous necessity of shifting coin from place to place. Traveling with paper in one form or another became the norm. Pilgrims would record the stations of their pilgrimage on large sheets of thick paper they then used to cover themselves at night. Some believed paper had magically protective powers. Jews considered everything written in Hebrew characters to be sacred regardless of its content, so huge quantities of paper were preserved simply because it was not permitted to throw away anything on which Hebrew was written. Thus the past began to demand a new space in the present, the virtual a place in the real.

With more and more uses for writing encouraging a growing literacy, written literature began to assert itself over the oral tradition. Throughout White Magic, Müller, who is best known as the literary editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, parallels his technical and social history of paper’s development with extensive reflections on its role in literary production. The Arabian Nights, he notes, a written text about tales told orally by a woman who had learned them from books, is full of references to paper and writing, both of which frequently have positive and even miraculous qualities. A man turned into a monkey by an evil spirit is able to save himself by demonstrating his ability to write, and what he writes is “a hymn to pen and ink, the progeny of Allah which make it possible for people to extend the chain of transmission beyond the bounds of death.”

The first European paper mills were established in Italy in the early thirteenth century, and Arabic technique was now transformed and accelerated by the mechanization Europeans had achieved in the textile and metalworking industries. The mills polluted the rivers they drew on to soak the rags and caused a stench with the boiled-down animal remains used for sizing—the process of smoothing the paper’s surface so it could be written on.

Each mill was a considerable investment risk, but no matter how much paper was produced it seemed a use could always be found for it. This was the century of Italy’s first merchant banking boom and the growth of a business community whose members would be recognized by their inky fingers as they learned to control their trading empires at a distance through the medium of paper and to give a new and rigorous account of their dealings in the double-entry ledger. In the meantime, Renaissance interest in the classical past led to a huge increase in the copying of old manuscripts. Soon enough European mills were exporting to the Middle East, provoking a long decline in Arabic paper production.

Behind all the facts and technical processes, the quality of the rags, the size of the paper sheets, the color and texture of different surfaces and how they were achieved, what Müller chiefly gives us is a sense of a collective human vocation for creating a world apart on paper, a parallel existence that complicates this world as a room can be complicated by hanging mirrors on the walls. It could be a mercantile, legal, or bureaucratic world impinging directly on reality, or a fictional world, or a devotional space, or again a space to play in.


The fourteenth century saw the rapid rise of the playing card, made from pasting slips of paper together, stamping them with a woodcut design, and coloring them, in much the same way that devotional images of saints were colored. For many people this would have been their first contact with paper that had to be “read.” And often a literate person with paper, pen, and ink would be required to create an IOU when card gamblers lost more than they could pay. The gambling craze was accompanied, needless to say, “by card game bans enacted by cities out of a fear that their citizens would be unable to pay their taxes.”

For those in government, paper brought a growing awareness of the power that comes with information. Philip II of Spain, who ruled from 1556 to 1598, won himself the nickname of the rey papelero, the paper king, for his determined use of paper in every aspect of his administration. Officials were regularly asked to fill in questionnaires and forms so that decisions could be based on all relevant information. Subjects were to appeal to him not in person but through petitions, sparing him the danger of making decisions on the spot and allowing him to administer justice without traveling at all. When Philip did grant audiences, he would invariably appear with a daunting sheaf of papers in his hands whose contents the petitioner could not know. “Even in the world of Philip II,” Müller remarks,


Abelardo Morell/Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Abelardo Morell: Curiouser and Curiouser, 1998

paper—in its dual role as a bearer of secrets and barrier to physical access to the sovereign—had a hand in shifting the center of power to the sphere of invisibility which would influence the modernization of administration in the early modern state.

As Müller considers the transformation brought about in paper production and writing habits with the arrival of the printing press in the fifteenth century, he enters into a debate with Marshall McLuhan and other media historians. Or rather, he takes issue with any account of the history of paper and print that seeks to turn it into a polemic, demonizing or sanctifying this or that development while insisting, as McLuhan tends to, on “dramatic epochal ruptures.” What most attracts Müller in his version of the story is the evidence of an underlying continuity and gathering web of complications, the onward march of paper making us constantly aware of a grid of polarities in human values—oral/visual, durable/ephemeral, popular/elitist—such that every move in one direction is matched by a countermove in the other.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan had seen print as marking a decisive shift from oral to visual mediums of communication, the rigidly parallel lines of the printed word, with its impersonal letters and standardized spelling, subjecting Western culture to a tyranny of linearity that would not be broken until the age of the computer. He (rather unwisely, one feels) drew on Rabelais and his hymn to the mysterious pantagruelion, a miracle plant and universal medicine, as evidence of the age’s enthusiasm for typesetting and belief that print offered a cultural panacea.

Müller, who has read widely and carefully, has little difficulty in suggesting how much more elusive, playful, and profound Rabelais’s miracle substance is. More interestingly, he shows that, far from taking over paper communication entirely, print developed side by side with handwritten texts of one kind or another for many centuries. In this regard one need only think of the armies of scriveners employed right up to the time of Melville’s Bartleby, or again the huge amounts of handwritten correspondence and schoolwork produced until just a few decades ago. At the same time, the impersonal and “finalized” printed page created a new interest in the personal, handwritten manuscript that lay behind it. The anonymous printed book thus called into being the autograph hunter, and ultimately the author archive.

Then there was the post office. “It is hard to overstate the importance of the connection between paper and the postal system,” Müller observes. Going back to the regular courier services of the late Middle Ages, he suggests how the periodical arrival of paper messages allowed time to be divided into regular segments and communications to establish a certain rhythm. In eighteenth-century London, where some areas boasted twelve postal deliveries a day, it made possible a constant flow of handwritten correspondence that combined the immediacy of conversation with the self-reflectiveness of the person who writes alone, something Samuel Richardson and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos would exploit to give the epistolary novel a new psychological depth. Very often Richardson’s Clarissa, and also Madame de Tourvel in Les Liaisons dangereuses, write letters to people they see and speak to every day, because on paper they can say things they would not dare say to another’s face.

In turn the recipient can read such letters in private without blushing. Paper makes this possible. Müller doesn’t develop this line of thought, but arguably one of the great contributions of written communication, especially in fiction, was the scope it gave for saying things that could not or would not be spoken out loud. In general, for a certain class of people, intimacy was becoming more and more a mental experience to be elaborated on paper. And just as it would soon be alarmingly difficult to establish what hard wealth lay behind paper money, so it could be extremely difficult to understand what importance to attach to a billet-doux.

Like all good stories, this one speeds up. Toward the middle of White Magic, as Müller considers Cervantes’s sparring with the imitator who told apocryphal tales of his Don Quixote and reflecting on how “a book’s success could threaten the author’s control over that book,” there is still a certain leisureliness to his account. Likewise in his discussion of the role of writing materials in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, both featuring characters marooned on desert islands in desperate need of pen and paper. Even the description of the madly complex etiquette of letter writing, in which seemingly endless different sizes, colors, and qualities of paper were used for different recipients, retains something quaint about it. But as Müller starts to trace the growth of newspaper journalism and the progress in paper and print mechanization that made it possible, it’s hard not to feel that something is accelerating out of control. From now on, as Nietzsche remarked, there would be “an obligation upon everyone to read his newspaper at breakfast,” written of course by “the ‘journalist,’ the paper slave of the day.”

Goethe, Dickens, Balzac, Zola, and Melville are all called upon to analyze the new obsession for the topical and the search for a constant supply of news to fill pages that were now turned out nonstop from huge cylinders in endless sheets. Not to mention the drive to create a literate public to pay for them. Unsurprisingly, the proliferation of newsprint led to a horror of triviality, superficiality, ephemera; a material that had allowed for ever more elaborate mental constructs and made possible a more coherent vision of individual identity was now favoring an avalanche of mechanized mindlessness. From Carlyle through to Joyce, Müller illustrates the tension between daily journalism and more noble literary and philosophical aspirations, Ulysses being understood as a work that constantly digests the ephemeral newspaper world of Leopold Bloom to transform it into the more lasting monumentality of the literature Stephen Dedalus aspires to write.

Meanwhile, there were no longer enough rags, and in the late eighteenth century paper manufacturers finally figured out how to use wood pulp to step up production yet again, something that immediately gave an added value to the older and more durable kinds of paper whose production was largely suspended. All the same, with the supply of paper now assured into the twentieth century and writing and copying speeded up with the advent of the typewriter, sooner or later a crisis of storage space was inevitable. It came in the 1960s when telephone connections allowed for instant stock transactions around the globe, all of which were still being recorded on growing mountains of paper. At this point computers and electronic data storage could not come soon enough.

Müller is as balanced and intelligent about the relationship between electronic text and paper text as he is about that between manuscript and print. Paper is presented throughout the book as a precursor of the screen-based page rather than its antagonist or enemy, and we are reminded of all the ways paper and computers continue to interact. Once again, the material displaced is seen in a new light and treated with greater respect; suddenly, Müller points out, we have become aware that paper has a smell, and that we always were, and still are, attached to it.

Putting down the English version of this excellent book, mindful of Jessica Spengler’s fine and no doubt taxing translation, it is hard not to feel how important and determining it is that its author is German. Müller could never be accused of forgetting the Anglophone world. He is always aware of the moments when Britain and America were central players in his story; he looks at Benjamin Franklin’s advocacy of paper money and William Gaddis’s criticism of the same centuries later. But he is never Anglocentric. Chinese, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch contributions are all there.

Above all, and quite apart from Gutenberg, German involvement in the history of paper and print was huge, so it’s good to have detailed accounts of German paper mills and postal systems and refreshing to hear of German authors one did not know, Grimmelshausen in particular. Indeed, part of the evenness of Müller’s attitude to his material seems related to his having a range of reference so broad and deep as to preclude any shrillness, alarmism, or nostalgia. Rather than harnessing facts for a polemic, he is clearly fascinated by the way the shift to electronic media confirms a vocation for the verbal and virtual, rather than annihilating a specifically paper-based culture. That said, even those like myself who are happy with e-books will be grateful to Müller’s publishers for printing White Magic on good, thick, creamy paper and including, at the end, a dozen blank pages, all of which I have covered with untidy, handwritten notes, to make this mechanical mass-produced artifact intimately my own.