Posts Tagged ‘Ian Sansom’

The Paper Chase

imageI’ve often bemoaned the Niagara of books and  journals and junk mail that’s besieged me through the years.  Only constant vigilance and an occasional drastic measure have kept me from being edged out of my room, to say nothing of the office.  But I have to own up to the fact that much of this is my own fault.  I love books.  I enjoy magazines and periodicals.  And a stationery store that features fine Italian card stock sends me over the top.

So you can imagine my ambivalence when a couple recently made me the proud owner of a book with the seductive title “Paper: An Elegy.”  It’s not a book I would have bought, but a title like that is hard to resist.  I could not leave it an orphan, unread, in some hotel room, because this book was right up my alley.  But of course this was no random selection, and the donors knew that.

In this short and nicely-printed tome, author Ian Sansom writes less about the technology of making paper, and instead devotes his prose to the cultural impact that paper has had through the centuries.  Paper is definitely one of those things we take for granted.  Yet, as Sansom demonstrates, it is omnipresent.  It turns up not only in the things we touch but in our very language and habits.

imageThe widespread use of paper was both the product of social change as well as the catalyst for social change.  In the medieval West, parchment (animal skin) was the medium of choice for manuscripts.  But paper and printing became not only the solution to the demands of rising literacy rates, but they accelerated those literacy rates.  Though some purists may have hated the new medium, there was no turning back.  And the Gutenberg Bible was but one example of this cultural shift.  For those who preferred the old and elegant ways, there were sets printed on vellum.  For those who welcomed the new technology, there was paper.  But despite any lingering nostalgia for kinder and gentler days, paper was the wave of the future.

Since then paper has had an impact far out of proportion to the cost of making it.  Thankfully, a hundred dollar bill is still not worth the paper it is printed on.  Paper has become art and sculpture and clothing.  Paper has been fashioned into dolls and puzzles and other playthings.  And paperbacks became an economic force that changed publishing, until the electronic book showed up.

The very word paper, embedded in our language, can be confusing in its meaning.  “To deliver a paper” can recall a youngster tossing the morning news into the bushes in front of  your house; or a scholar standing at a podium droning on to a room filled with dozing colleagues.  To “do paperwork” evokes an office-worker mired in stacks of letters and memos, though as often as not we do paperwork electronically these days.  That evolution is reminiscent of the changes in clerical work.  I’m one of the few clerics I know who still does traditional clerical work.  Strangely enough, most clerics I know think it means “pastoral work”, to the near total neglect of real clerical work.

imageOne of the best features of Sansom’s book is the variety of topics to be addressed in its chapters and sections.  This makes it ideal for plane-rides and short snippets of reading at home.  It also increases the likelihood that you will find something of special interest.  In my own case there was nothing that even hinted that chapter 7, “Constructive Thinking”, would deal with the Bauhaus, a design school located in Dessau in Germany.  But Sansom opens the chapter with Josef Albers standing in front of a class of budding architects, asking them to design something with a piece of paper.  Most of us think of paper as two-sided, when in fact an 8×11 piece of paper has six sides.  Albers encouraged his students to use the often-neglected four edges, and in the process he pushed the envelope of their creativity.

Albers may not ring any bells for most people, but at Saint John’s he left his own creative imprint in the form of stained glass.  His colored-glass skylights adorn the roof of the Abbey chapter house.  Yellow and orange windows fill the lantern of the Abbey church with golden light that is especially welcome in mid-winter.  And a lovely grey and white window faces out from the Bishop’s Suite in the monastery.  Architect Marcel Breuer, who also studied at the Bauhaus, had pegged Albers to build the giant north window of the Abbey church.  Sadly, it never got translated into reality, though his design would have transformed the interior of the church with its golden hue.  Happily, his plans for the huge window still exist, in case we ever decide to revisit the issue.

imageIn the monastic tradition, paper has had an impact that we often overlook.  In the heyday of expensive vellum books, it was far cheaper to have one giant book from which several monks could chant.  Individual books were far too expensive, and so monks shared books and memorized prayers.  Not so during the last five hundred years, when communities could finally afford to supply each monk with the books necessary for choir.  With that came the gradual disappearance of the giant stands that held the giant books.  And if they still stand in sanctuaries, they stand unused except by the occasional reader.

Abbey of San Giorgio, Venice

Abbey of San Giorgio, Venice

Sansom’s book is filled with interesting detail that rewards the reader, and his occasional sidebars can entertain.  For one, he writes of the persistence of cigarettes rolled in paper.  “Nothing says ‘I’m a despairing intellectual’ like sucking on flaming paper,” he notes archly.  But left unaddressed is the failed prediction that the computer would lead to the paperless office.  Far from it.  Just ask the makers of filing cabinets and printers and storage facilities.  And architects must now calculate the added weight of massive amounts of paper in their buildings.  It is not insignificant.

As for me, paper is as important as ever.  For one thing, nothing incites writer’s block quite like a blank yellow pad of paper staring up at me from my desk.  On the other hand, I can write quickly and endlessly on an iPad, but the overabundance of verbage is just too much.  And nothing brings out the creativity quite like paper.  A first draft of pen on paper is agony.  A second and even a third draft are ecstasy.  Turning it into electronic images on a  screen is icing on the cake.  But I always allow myself the comfort of a paper copy when it’s all over.  It’s such a satisfying object to behold, even if it does add to the mountain on my desk.

Virgin with Child, reading. 1543.  Cluny Museum, Paris.

Virgin with Child, reading. 1543. Cluny Museum, Paris.


+On August 3rd we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Alexander Andrews.  Fr. Alex was born in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois before serving four years in the military.  He then went on to receive an MA in history at Columbia University, and still later studied Russian and Eastern European history at Berkeley.  As a monk he taught in the history department at Saint John’s University, and he was one of those teachers that people never forgot.  Both in the monastery and outside Fr. Alex was known as a real character, and we will miss his wit and good nature.

+A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune detailed the resurgence of the Canada goose population in Minnesota during the past fifty years.  In that time they’ve rebounded to the point at which they’ve become pests.  And while they may be graceful and beautiful, their gifts on the lawn leave a bit to be desired.

imageWe’ve shared in this abundance at Saint John’s, though numbers in their favorite gathering space are down considerably this year.  Dozens of them would congregate  on summer evenings on the narrow strip of land between Gemini Lakes.  There they warmed their feet on the pavement of the entry road into Saint John’s, spending their time and energy hissing at oncoming traffic.  It was generally their last hiss, since they forced drivers to choose between hitting the geese or careening off into one of the lakes.  That was when I began to understand what people meant when they pointed out that so-and-so “didn’t have the good sense that God gave geese.”

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