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Book review: White Magic: The Age of Paper, by Lothar Müller

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm

White Magic: The Age of Paper
by Lothar Müller 
Polity

Paper, like film and the phonograph, revolutionised our cultures but have now been replaced by digital alternatives. As paper increasingly fades into history, the story of its role and evolution is at risk of being lost, erasing the roadmap that brought us to the digital era.

Lothar Müller's White Magic: The Age of Paper goes a long way to averting that fate, going back in time to record and describe in intricate detail how paper came to be, and what it came to be. Müller, a "literary scholar and newspaper journalist interested in cultural studies", writes that in researching this book he was "focused on what modern European literature knows about the material from which it is made" - and he achieves his goal.

Müller sets out by describing how the Silk Road was also a paper road, as paper was a cultural technique that seeped from China to the Arab world before being popularised in Europe from the 13th century onwards.

Each move came with, and as a result of, innovations in production and materials while reflecting the economics and geopolitics of the time. Mechanisation of the English textile industry increased the supply of rags, a key raw material for paper production until the late 1800s, when the paper industry made another geographical shift.

"Rag paper came by its raw materials most easily in places with a high population density. But the move to mechanical and chemical wood pulp meant the sparsely populated but heavily forested regions of North America and Northern Europe quickly grew in importance," Müller writes.

A notable feature of Müller's work is that it not only looks at the physicality of the page, from the marks left as it was scooped from the vat, to the invention of water marks and the introduction of standardised paper sizes, but also delves into the role paper played in ideas and literature, illustrated by how paper plays into Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. It is not only about paper-making, but also about how paper and typesetting affected the written word itself.

"One symptom of the need [paper] fulfilled could be seen in the lettering on parchment manuscripts, which had become more and more cramped … The arrival of paper helped loosen these constraints. It gave texts a more reader-friendly breathing space."

Interestingly, the same argument was made when digital publishing emerged, although comparing today's vacuous blogs to 17th- or 18th-century literature proves too much of a good thing can have dastardly results.

White Magic may not be a page turner, but it does offer fascinating details, such as the role of playing cards in the growth of paper in Europe in the 15th century. The production of playing cards for a time consumed more paper than chanceries and town councils, which long served as mainstays of the paper industry.