White Magic by Lothar Müller

Read Christian Niedan's interview with Lothar Müller here

Lothar Müller
White Magic: The Age of Paper
November 2014
Malden, MA
Polity Press
312 pages
ISBN -13: 9780745672533
Buy here

As digital media increasingly impinge on the status, and even the very existence, of paper-based communications, one could easily expect a story about the history of paper to take on a somber, almost elegiac tone. But the tale that Lothar Müller spins in White Magic: The Age of Paper is one that brings paper—as both physical material and a playing field on which the human imagination can run wild—to vivid life. Incorporating a wealth of historical detail, technical information, and critical analysis, Müller makes his account lively and compelling, giving paper a personality and substance that is on par with any words that may appear on it. In his book, paper is not just the silent partner of the printing press. Instead, it is an extremely versatile substance—one whose uses and forms shape human thought and behavior in many ways.

“Paper is older than the printing press, and its history encompasses far more that just the history of printed paper,” he writes. “Above all, paper is not merely inert matter or a passive object upon which the intellect expresses itself in the form of letters.” By turning paper itself into the focus of White Magic, Müller lets the changes it has gone through over the course of its history serve as a mirror in which we can discern the technological, social, and aesthetic changes that have taken place alongside that story. Paper serves as a container of thoughts and words, an increasingly speedy method of delivering information, a material with a broad variety of industrial and practical uses, and a symbol representing the development of language, literature, and art. As such, it becomes a vibrant, many-layered protagonist, one whose narrative is full of anecdotes, information, and drama.

Müller is quite well-equipped to write this story. The editor of the features section of the German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and a professor of general and comparative literature at Berlin Free University, he combines a journalist’s eye for detail with a scholar’s sensitivity to aesthetic form and structure. Equally at home describing the lives of the ragpickers who once played a central role in the production of paper and the narrative strategies of authors ranging from Cervantes to Joyce, he puts together a compelling case for seeing paper as a technological marvel that is the equal of anything the digital world has developed.

While Müller acknowledges the impossibility of ever pinpointing the exact origins of paper, he starts his story by looking at its early development in China. From the earliest “proto-paper” that was produced from soaked plant fibers, to the rag-based papers that were the mainstay of production up through the late-19th century, to the incorporation of wood pulp and mass-factory production, the book charts the many incremental refinements that paper has gone through. Far from being seen as a static, unchanging substance, it is seen as a product that is constantly being redefined and reconfigured, the subject of an almost limitless amount of innovations.

Those innovations result in a material whose uses and significance go beyond the printed page. In fact, one of the earliest widespread uses of paper was in playing cards. Paper money, wrapping paper, keypunch cards, even toilet paper—all of these have a presence that goes beyond simply seeing paper as a vessel to carry a writer’s words. Müller vividly describes the importance of these uses, and clearly shows how paper’s many functions make it an active player in the world.

But the scope of White Magic does not just chart the physical life of paper itself. Paper’s ability to be “a storage battery and conductor,” a way of both disseminating information and saving it for posterity, is also examined in detail. The emergence of double-entry bookkeeping, card catalogs, and a variety of other filing and archiving uses are seen as giving paper an official role, a status as storage substance of record that lends anything put down on paper a sense of validity and a permanence that is only called into question when the propensity of much paper to deteriorate in time makes itself known.

As for paper’s function as a conductor of information, the emergence of both mass-produced fiction and newspapers is discussed in detail. Paired with advances in both paper production and printing technology, Müller shows us how an ever-expanding stream of books, magazines, and newspapers changed not only the way that information was delivered to an audience, but also transformed the very idea of what writing was, and of what it could do.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is in the discussion of how the roles that paper has played have shaped society’s view of itself, both in the press and in literature. Whether through epistolary novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa or the depiction of the press in the works of Dickens and Balzac, physical documents on paper increasingly show up as integral components of literary works. Müller finds what is perhaps the best example of this in Balzac’s Lost Illusions. Juxtaposing the worlds of art and commerce, the novel offers up both a pocket history of how printing and the production of paper transformed themselves in 19th-century France, and of how that transformation in turn changed the very nature of what was written. A keen and sensitive literary critic, Müller excels at marshaling a wealth of details to the service of his story. From the typographic games of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to the mysterious packet of letters that are at the center of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, he makes a strong case for seeing paper, in both its handwritten and printed forms, as a major creator of narrative meaning and focus.

As regards the changing roles that paper faces in the era of e-books and smartphones, Müller does not see it simply vanishing into the mists of history. For one thing, the ephemeral quality of a digitally published piece of writing would appear to leave a rather large space for printed matter’s continuing existence. He notes that the purchasers of an e-book “do not acquire ownership of such a book: they acquire a usage right, a license to read.” In his estimation, the expanded capabilities of an electronic text make it a totally different entity from a printed book, giving it a new set of functions and identities, rather than merely supplanting the book as we know it. “Printing and publishing are no longer the same thing,” he writes. “We live in a world where the analog and the digital reciprocally permeate each other; we are hybrids, and so are our media.”

Steven Barnes
Nomadic Press
Barnes has written for publications from the Wall Street Journal to ARTnews and has worked as a graphic designer and editor.