Monday, 17 December 2012

Book Review - Paper: An Elegy

Books make ideal last-minute presents, so I'm running several reviews of very giftable titles in the run-up to Christmas. First up:

Paper: An Elegy
Ian Sansom 
Fourth Estate
ISBN 978-00-00-748026-5

This delightfully quirky – and very personal – appreciation of paper is an erudite compendium of curiosities – and wonder. This book is a personally curated paper museum, a sort of Schott’s Almanac of paper in prose. I subscribe to a very lovely blog by Ann Martin, called All Things Paper ( – and that is a very apt description of this book. The book is a guided tour of the history of paper – and the author has definitely thought outside the cardboard box in formulating its contents.

The premise is that mankind’s recent  (well, the last 2,000 years plus) of social and cultural history is inextricably tied to paper and paper products – perhaps in ways that may not even have occurred to you.  And the age of the e-book is an appropriate time to reflect on the physical history of paper in all its many guises, as well as all its many influences. There are chapters on the history of paper manufacturing, maps, books, paper money, advertising and packaging (including board games and toy theatres). Art, literature, science, peace treaties, wallpaper – it’s all here. The scope of this book is astonishing. It is like a pop-up book for the mind.

The chapter on origami is a revelation!  As a papercrafter, origami  is a term you’ve probably grown up with. But its mainstream use was only popularized in the 1950s – before that, in the Western world, it was generally known simply as paper folding. When I was a child, my grandfather used to entertain me with a party trick in which he turned a rolled up newspaper – with a few deft cuts – into a telescoping ladder. Apparently this trick was in a 1922 book by Harry Houdini. Who knew?!

This book is filled with gems of information that are so good, they are like unwrapping presents (so I won’t reveal them here). A very entertaining read, you’ll want to keep each chapter as a treat. The author does have a cringe-inducing  tendency towards twee overload – so be warned – this is well worth overlooking.

This book is illustrated in black and white with well-chosen material.  The quantity and quality of the illustrations is not lavish – and you are left wanting more. However, this  is not meant to be a coffee table book . 

For an info-taining and thought-provoking diversion for paper-holics, look no further.

It is very appropriate that, at the present time, this book is only available in paper – not electronically.  As you would expect, it is a handsomely bound hardback with a very classy embossed cover.

Note: I was given a review copy of this title.