the paper trail

Alexander Monro, Allen Lane, 368 pages

Paper is said to have been invented in 105 A.D. by a Chinese eunuch named Cai Lun. Almost 2,000 years later, more than 400 million tons of paper and cardboard are manufactured every year, to be used as tissues, cereal boxes, newspapers, small cigarette papers, wallpaper and books.

In "The Paper Trail," Alexander Monro is not much interested in this exhaustive miscellany, not even in one of the most inventive uses of paper: money. He virtually ignores all these functions as mere subplots in the story of books, declaring: "History's most galvanizing ideas have hitched a lift on [paper's] surface."

Monro's focus is China, which he knows well. When the Greeks and the Romans were carving on stone and writing on papyrus scrolls, Chinese scholars were using paper. The manufacturing process began its spread westward after the Battle of Talas in 751, when the Chinese army was beaten by Arabs from the Abbasid caliphate. Chinese prisoners taught Arabs the technique for making paper.

The great acceleration in Europe began with the invention of movable-type printing by Gutenberg in 1439. This consolidated the significance of Cai's invention, and enables Monro to argue paper is a more important invention than, say, electricity, penicillin or the internal-combustion engine.

Paper has made life easier for people while advancing ideas; its uses are worthy of more than a subplot in this history. On the other hand, computers and the Internet are providing paper with heavy competition. Books, such as Monro's elegantly presented paper trail, could one day become an anachronism.