Mark Kurlansky is the author of twenty-nine books, some of them novels. Where he’s really made a name for himself is in and around the food business. The first of his bestsellers was Cod. He followed this with Salt and, in 2014, a biography of Clarence Birdseye II, the founder of the frozen-food industry. Prizes and praise have been his in equal proportion.
Paper is aimed at a general readership and is also excellent. Kurlansky takes us steadily through the origins of paper and the reasons (usually bureaucratic) why there was a demand for it, starting with China and the Islamic world and ending, of course, with the age of email and the most rapidly declining type of paper, newsprint. Once again, bureaucracy is the driving force: the volume of records generated today could not possibly be stored anywhere except on computer hard drives. There is much in this early story that is arresting. The case of the Chinese bamboo strips is a good example.
In 2006 a batch of waterlogged ‘manuscripts’ now known as the Tinghua texts was unearthed in south-central China. These documents were written on hundreds of strips of bamboo, nine inches or so long on average, and date, it is said, from about 300 BC, the era of the Hundred Schools