Monday, November 19, 2012



 Ian Sansom © Granta

This is writer Ian Sansom and this is a review of his recently published book ‘Paper:An Elegy’ [Fourth Estate].

By way of introduction, Sansom  has also written a book on babies and the Mobile Library Mystery series, four books so far, featuring Israel Armstrong, a Jewish vegetarian from England who runs a mobile library in Northern Ireland.

In a great essay on Northern Irish writing, he says: ‘I didn’t have the foresight actually to be born in Northern Ireland, [Ed: he was born in Essex] but I have had the good sense to come and live here: love and marriage can take a person to all sorts of unexpected places.’ He studied at both Oxford and Cambridge, currently teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University in Belfast and writes for The Guardian and the London Review of Books. 

His website captures delightfully the spirit of the man: a lover of curiosities, a keen observer of the intricacies and absurdities of everyday life, a great storyteller, a natural humorist and poet. A man whose easy-going self-effacing style masks his deep erudition and his feelings of despair.

The biographical sketch on his website begins: ‘It’s embarrassing, of course, to talk or write about oneself, to show off, to presume that other people might be interested in one’s own sad and wasted life, when clearly other people have sad and wasted lives of their own to be getting on with.


‘Paper: An Elegy’ is a welcome and timely book that is effortlessly intriguing, packed as it is with strange facts, curious stories and unlikely people.The book covers, amongst other things chapters on the history of paper-making, trees, maps, bibliomania, bank notes, advertisement labels, paper and architecture, artists and paper, paper toys, origami, the military and bureaucratic use of paper, and a final chapter that jams together information on paper in film and photography, toilet paper, paper clothes, cigarette papers, paper boats and much more. Its a highly invigorating brew, studded with the author’s personal memories and digressions.


Paper dog by James Vance. Source: Rochembeau blog

Fascinating as all that is, the book covers two themes that are of even greater interest to The Generalist – paper in the digital age and the environmental issues connected with paper production – both of which have been the subject of Previous Posts (see below).

I am old enough to remember the notion of the ‘paperless office’ back in the 1970s alongside the then-discussed topic of the ‘information explosion’.

The current debate is about the ’death of paper' - the death of newspapers and books, the threats to libraries and independent bookshops, the rise of electronic readers and so on.

This book is a useful corrective to some of these notions. As Sansom clearly point out: ‘We live in a paper world. Without paper our lives would be unimaginable…Imagine for a moment that paper were to disappear. Would everything be lost? Everything would be lost.'

‘Paper’, he writes ‘is the ultimate man-made material. It’s cheap, light durable, and be folded and cut and bent and twisted and lacquered and woven and waterproofed so that it can be used in almost every way and for anything.’

The ubiquitousness of paper in all its forms and our addiction to ‘the white stuff’ shows little sign of abating. The average American, for instance, consumes 750lbs of paper every year

In our new digital world we may appear to be moving away from paper but, in fact, our use of these new technologies has increased office paper consumption. According to The Myth of the Paperless Office by Sellen and Harper ‘technological change has not replaced paper use but rather has shifted the point at which paper is used.’ In other words, says Sansom, ‘we distribute and print, rather than print and distribute.’ The average office employee in the West now uses over 10,000 sheets of paper per year he informs us.

[There’s a useful pdf here  of Sellen & Harper’s book which gives a summary and overview of its contents. It says: ‘The phrase ‘paperless office’ is traced to Xerox PARC, although they trace the idea of replacing paper-based methods of working all the way back to the 1800s with Samual Morse’s idea of electronic mail.’ ]

Interestingly Sansom tells us that  Pixar Animation Studios, one of the most advanced digital production studios in the world, still uses paper storyboards and employs 5-15 full-time artists to produce them. They also hold daily life-drawing classes open to all. For the 2005 movie Finding Nemo for example, 45,536 storyboard drawings were produced in total. We also learn that storyboards were first developed by Walt Disney studios in the early 1930s and first used for a live-action film on Gone With the Wind.

Sansom documents the amount and kinds of paper he use in constructing his book, which he tells us, is printed on 100gsm Ferigoni Edizioni Cream, composed of a mix of  hardwood and softwood fibres from eucalyptus, pine and Fagus sylvatica, grown in Austria, France and Brazil and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as being from responsible sources.

A ream of paper is roughly equivalent to 5 per cent of a tree which means, Sansom calculates, that just the notes for the book  consumed one entire tree ‘though that’s not including all the paper books that were read and consumed in its production, nor the paper used for its own printing and publication.’ The gross product cost was ‘probably at least a small copse.’

The environmental cost of paper production is immense. ‘Today’, writes Sansom, ‘almost half of all industrially felled wood is pulped for paper, and according to green campaigners our uncontrollable  appetite for the white stuff has become a threat to the entire blue planet.’

He quotes writer/activist Mandy Haggith: ‘Making a single sheet of A4 paper not only causes as much greenhouse gas emissions as burning a light bulb for an hour, it also uses a mugful of water.’

The paper industry, dominated by a few giant conglomerates – International Paper, Georgia-Pacific, Weyhaeuser and Kimberley-Clark – stands accused of destroying ancient forests and replacing them with monoculture plantations, sustained by chemical fertilisers. Industrial paper making not only consumes trees but also finite resources of water, minerals, metals and fuels.

The cover of Sansom’s thought-provoking book carries an IMPORTANT MESSAGE: ‘Paper is the technology through which and with which we have made sense of the world. The making of paper and the manifold uses of paper have made our civilisation what it is.’ The other important message is that our love of paper products in their multitudinous forms has come at a very high cost.


‘Can Paper Survive the Digital Age?’ is an article Sansom wrote for The Guardian about his book

Sansom’s book reviewed alongside ‘The Missing Ink’ by Philip Hensher – a book on the decline of handwriting – in The Telegraph.



THE END OF PAPER ? [9 Sept 2008]




E.BOOKS1: MICHAEL S. HART [29 Oct 2011]


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