THE BLOG
06/12/2014 02:47 pm ET | Updated Aug 12, 2014

Why You Should Be Thankful For Paper Books

You are lucky!

The first writing was done on clay tablets with pointed sticks, and thank Heaven that idea didn't survive. If it had, and if the Sumerians had found a way of binding their clay tablets into books, your once treasured copy of Encyclopedia Britannica (itself rapidly becoming its own type of relic) would have arrived on the back of a dump truck. Unloaded with a fork lift it would have been carefully placed in the middle of your garage, because the floor in your upstairs home office would have allowed it to rest for only a few minutes before it crashed through into the kitchen below and came to rest in the basement, in pieces.

Also it would have required your wife, son and eldest daughter to help open the first page, as these tablets would be incredibly thick and heavy in order to withstand the carving process without cracking or breaking. From then on the word "Aardvark" would have had special meaning. But luckily for the written word, papyrus paper arrived in 3000 B.C. just in time to help kick start western civilization and literature as we know it. From then on, as cuneiform clay tablets faded into the background, the world could breathe easier as words became as transmittable and as easy to spread as the scrolls they were written on.

Made by the Egyptians from thin slices of the white inner stem, which were pressed together then dried to make millions of sheets, from the beginning, the Egyptians, and later the Greeks, Romans and Arabs, would swear by it.

What a godsend. And the early Christians likewise would be relieved when they looked around for something to record their early scriptures on and found papyrus paper in sheets, rolls and folded pages made into an early book called a "codex." Lucky for them, and again for us, that the plant the Egyptians used was among the fastest growing, most productive plants on earth. Under the hot sun and cloudless skies of old Egypt, it prospered in the ancient swamps, which were millions of acres in size.

In later years, Egyptian rule gave way and from 30 B.C. to 640 A.D. the Romans took over management of the industry, which went on to supply the whole of the Roman Empire with scrolls and sheets. One Roman statesman, Cassiodorus, openly admitted that he did not know how the civilized Western world had got on without it, since by his day it was used for books, records of business, correspondence, orders of the day for the Roman army, even the first newspaper, the Acta Diurna, originally carved on stone was written on papyrus paper and was now easier to carry around.

Pliny tells us that in 44 B.C. "...(papyrus) paper tends to be in short supply, and as early as in the time of Tiberius a shortage led to the appointment of commissioners from the Senate to oversee its distribution; otherwise daily life would have been in chaos."

Here was the one plant in the history of the world powerful enough to stop the Roman Senate in its tracks. In this way it ruled the world in the same fashion that King Cotton later ruled the South, the demand for papyrus being met exclusively by the papyrus swamps of Egypt.

Even Shirley Hazzard, the bestselling novelist and writer, found this key role played by papyrus in ancient times extraordinary. While in Naples in the 1980s, she covered the 17th International Congress of Papyrology as a "Far-Flung Correspondent" for the New Yorker. Here she tells us that, "...Failure of the Egyptian papyrus crop could mean to the Roman world a paralysis of commerce and affairs of state, and suspension of work for innumerable scribes who carried on the enormous labor of transcription."

So, whoever controlled Egypt controlled the medium of choice, and it was big business, employing thousands of people, some highly specialized for the different branches of the industry: cultivating and harvesting the plant, transporting the raw material to the factory, fabrication, sale, and shipment of the finished product.

By the time the Saracens invaded Egypt the trade in papyrus paper had reached its peak and the Byzantine Empire (324-1453) was the last major user of papyrus paper. For their manuscripts, monks later preferred parchment, an expensive product of animal skins, but the emerging middle class of notaries and merchants in Europe turned instead to a paper produced by the Arabs who then ruled Spain. This was a lightweight laid (or rag) paper, an invention of the Chinese wherein a pulp of fibers from rags or mulberry bark was mixed into a slurry, poured onto a flat screen, dried and peeled off the screen. At first this laid paper was of poor quality. It looked like tissue paper and was used by the Chinese royal family as facial tissue or toilet paper. Even in the 14th century it was fragile, had a rough surface, and "drank" the water-based ink. This may also be why in the markets of Cairo by 1035, vegetables, spices, and hardware were being wrapped in laid paper, which was cheaper and more pliable than papyrus, and so could be looked upon as a "throwaway."

Once it was improved and hardened it became the paper we use today. But the original model was papyrus, which made writing so easy that it became a flowing cursive series of letters and words, and set a precedent for writing and record keeping from which human civilization could never turn back from. Even the digital transmission of words and ideas, the fastest medium yet, follows in the footsteps of this remarkable plant and the impact it had on disseminating literature and ideas across cultures and empires.

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