How Old Media Got Rolling Paper’s triumph over other media in China was secured by an explosion of Buddhist teaching.

Mr. Monro gives a generous account of the startling intellectual achievements made during this era of Islamic preeminence, from astronomy and mathematics to geography and medicine, all possible because of paper. The rich scholastic environment in the Islamic world, which often drew strength from Greek classics and Hindu sources, is even more impressive when compared with the contemporaneous stagnation of Europe. As late as the 14th century, the Vatican Library held only 2,000 volumes (private book ownership in Europe was banned). Meantime, libraries with tens of thousands of volumes were common in major Islamic capitals, and a Fatimid Dynasty library in Cairo contained 1.6 million books.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

The trick of the book about a single commodity is to go from the narrow focus on the nominal topic at hand to a sweeping portrait of how it transformed an era, or—even better—how it exercised an unsuspected influence on the deeply hidden machinery of society or global culture. This feat has been pulled off to varying degrees of success in books about sugar, salt, cotton, coffee and, a bit less obviously, cod—so much so that the genre itself has come to feel a bit like a cliché.

Fortunately, that didn’t stop Alexander Monro from undertaking the latest installment in this unofficial series with “The Paper Trail.” In it, he traces the history of paper from its dim origins in China roughly 2,200 years ago through its gradual emergence as the most indispensable global medium of communication for the last half millennium. Paper is still kicking, but its position has suddenly become precarious, thanks to another revolutionary medium, this one digital.

THE PAPER TRAIL

By Alexander Monro

Knopf, 362 pages, $30

Mr. Monro, to his credit, doesn’t come by his arguments crudely. By the end of his book there can be little doubt that he believes that of the items that have transformed civilization, paper and its offspring, bound books, sit near the top of the pile of humanity’s greatest inventions.

He begins his account with the early history of writing in China. True to his roots as a Sinologist, one gets more than passing depth on the country’s early political culture, the rise of China’s competing indigenous religious doctrines, Confucianism and Daoism, and episodes of military and political history, such as the famous burning of libraries by the tyrannical third-century-B.C. Qin Dynasty emperor.

Mr. Monro tells us that the first known reference to paper dates to 217 B.C., when it appears to have been used in a folk cure. “If a man’s hair without reason stands erect like worms, whiskers or eyebrows, he will have encountered a bad spirit. To resolve this, boil a hemp shoe with paper, and the evil will be dismissed,” reads the reference, written on bamboo and excavated from a cave in 1975 in central China.

The substance was popularized by the Hexi Empress, Deng Sui, a formidable woman who ruled during the Han Dynasty for a decade and a half, during the second century A.D., when China introduced the use of paper in the workings of government for the first time anywhere.

But this was a tentative breakthrough, because prestigious texts like Confucian classics were still written on bamboo, giving that medium an elite aura. The fascinating argument that Mr. Monro develops slowly and methodically is that paper’s rise was driven not by the state but by religion, particularly Buddhism. Paper’s definitive triumph over earlier media in China, which included turtle shells, stones, wood, bamboo strips, silk and something called talipat leaves (and in other parts of the world things like papyrus, vellum and parchment), was secured in a kind of symbiosis with the explosion of Buddhist teaching early in the first centuries of the Christian era.

Buddhism eschewed elitism and aimed straight for the masses, many of whom were illiterate and adopted sutras copied out on paper as talismans. During the second and third centuries, a Buddhist clergy began to flourish in China and monks busied themselves frantically translating and publishing scripture on paper, which was cheaper, easier to write on and less bulky than bamboo.

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By the sixth century, private collections of Buddhist writings dwarfed collections of the Confucian classics. “What this foreign religion might have never achieved in China on bamboo, wood or stone alone—namely, a broad market of reader-buyers—had, thanks to the rise of paper, been delivered.”

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