Ian Sansom in today’s (November 10th) Guardian on the benefits of paper. To his credit, perhaps, his extended riff on the subject does not develop into an e-reader versus book wrangle, on which there is only occasionally something new or interesting to say.
Civilisation is built on paper. Paper money has made our economies. Paper maps divided our land. Paper laws propped up our governments, and paper books helped shape our minds. Despite the obvious encroachments of the digital, we all still use so much paper to note, to register, to measure, to account for, to classify, authorise, endorse and generally to tot up, gee up and make good our lives that it would be a Joycean undertaking to provide a full history of all the paper in just one life on one day, never mind in one city on one day, or in the life of one nation. Fortunate for us, then, that Joyce has already undertaken it: Ulysses, one of the great constructions of the human imagination, is nothing if not a vast paper palace, made up of bits of posters, pamphlets, sandwich boards and boot blacking ads. Leopold Bloom himself is an advertising canvasser, soliciting ads for the Dublin paper the Freeman, and the novel is literally composed from scraps. “I make notes on the backs of advertisements,” Joyce told a friend in 1917. He also made much use of waistcoast-pocket-sized pieces of paper, large enough to make multiple memos-to-self about Epps Cocoa, Bushmill’s whiskey, Guinness, Ginger Ale, Pear’s soap and Plumtree’s potted meat, all of which feature largely and exuberantly throughout the novel. In one startling passage Bloom imagines an innovative travelling stationery advertisement, “a transparent show cart with two smart girls sitting inside writing letters, copybooks, envelopes, blotting paper. I bet that would have caught on.”