Islam and paper

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Feb 23 07:46:26 MST 2002


In "Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the 
Islamic World" (Yale University Press, $45), Jonathan M. Bloom traces 
the history of paper, as well as of writing itself. Any such account 
involves the cultures that use paper, what they used it for, and how 
paper so shaped history that it can seem to be identical with 
civilization. Paper is vegetable fiber soaked to a pulp and dried in 
thin sheets. Its origins in China go back so far that they have 
become lost in myth. It was invented as wrapping (the paper bag 
precedes the New York Times, Chinese Kleenex precedes the
Analects of Confucius, and fastidious Chinese aristocrats had toilet 
paper in 600 A.D.). For the first 3,000 years of writing, clay 
tablets, bamboo strips, and papyrus (a kind of paper) served for 
letters, government documents, and drawing.

The craft of papermaking spread from China along the Great Trade 
Route. This diffusion was the work of western Islam, in Persia and 
Afghanistan. Although the Koran was piously transcribed only onto 
parchment (usually sheepskin), it was eventually written on paper as 
copies to be memorized by students. For centuries the Koran could not 
be printed, partly because the calligraphy in which it is written is 
an integral part of its beauty.

Gibbon laments that we got gunpowder from China when we could have 
had paper and printing. When Gutenberg invented movable type, paper 
was still considered a tacky surface for writing. The hand-copied 
manuscript book on vellum was what the Middle Ages considered "a 
book." The Medicis would not allow a printed book into their 
libraries, even when Venetian, Dutch, and German presses were 
printing the most beautiful books the world has ever seen.
Professor Bloom's study is focused on Islamic writing, as that is 
where paper evolved a culture of all but unimaginable splendor in 
calligraphy and the illuminated manuscript. Baghdad was the center of 
civilized writing: poetry, theology, science, history, cartography, 
medicine, and narrative prose—the Thousand and One Nights, for 
example.

Paper Before Print is a sumptuous book: 8K by 11 inches, beautifully 
illustrated, lucidly written, and meticulously researched: its 
bibliography runs to thirteen pages. There are sidebars in the 
margins that go into erudite technologies. This is a book to put on 
your shelf beside Jean Seznec's The Survival of the Pagan Gods (1940 
in French; 1953, English) and George Sarton's magisterial 
Introduction to the History of Science (1927). These three studies 
rectify our traditional notion that Western civilization jumped from 
Greece and Rome into the Renaissance and modern times. It was, 
rather, passed on to us by Islam, enriched and sophisticated, and on 
paper.

(from a review in the March 2002 Harper's)

-- 
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 02/23/2002

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