Paper Exhalation

A double book report for two tangentially-related books: Paper by Mark Kurlansky, and Exhalation by Ted Chiang

I was a big fan of Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt, so I’ve been looking forward to his more recent book Paper, the second in his series of biographies of a mid-80s hip-hop girl group whose name he mis-heard.

Inexcusably contrived dad jokes aside, Paper uses roughly the same structure as Salt did: trace our use of a seemingly mundane but ubiquitous and essential thing throughout history, to present a popular survey of world history to a wide audience. I think Salt worked much better, possibly because it seems like an even more boring topic than what is essentially the history of written communication and record-keeping.

The tangents into corresponding inventions, and the bits of detailed information about a person that are usually overlooked in a more “serious” survey of history, are what make Kurlansky’s work interesting, and there simply seemed to be fewer available here. There wasn’t a whole lot that was surprising. For instance: before reading Salt, I’d never realized that so many towns in England ended with “wich” because they were originally locations of salt mines. Similarly, Paper explains how the elements required for paper mills — abundant water, water as a source of power, available rags or pulp for fiber — determined which parts of the world could be good sources of paper production. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t so easily distill down into the Mental Floss-style quick-fun-fact-to-share format.

I don’t feel like I learned the actual process of making paper in a way that made sense to me, even though much of the book is devoted to almost describing the process in detail. I know that it involves vats of water, and beating rags into pulp, and screens and fibers that somehow end up forming a film that is pressed and dried. But that’s just what I’ve been able to glean over hundreds of pages, and it’s honestly not more or less detailed than what I already knew about the process. I don’t recall at any point the book giving a satisfying explanation of the procedure from start to finish, so chapters and chapters of subsequent innovations and modifications to the process were lost on me, because I didn’t have enough context to understand why they were significant.

It’s also frustratingly centered on Europe, which has been my main annoyance with attempts to learn more about history since high school. The book acknowledges that paper was invented in China, and that most of the technological innovations that brought Europe out of the “Dark Ages” were either borrowed from or independently invented in Asia and the Middle East, so it’s not that the book is chauvinistic or misleading. But still, it abandons an entire hemisphere while it talks about how paper and printing spread through Europe and the New World, only going back to East Asia at the end to talk about Japanese paper craft and Chinese recycling.

So comparing the two Kurlansky books I’ve read at this point, I’d say that Salt was surprisingly interesting and entertaining, while Paper was pretty much exactly what it says on the cover.

One of the recurring points that Kurlansky emphasizes in Paper is that he doesn’t believe societies are fundamentally changed by technology, but rather that they inevitably develop the technology they most need to accommodate the ways that their societies are already changing. For instance, paper didn’t create bureaucracies; China needed a bureaucracy at that point in its development, and paper was the invention that made it possible. It helped explain how my reading a book about the history of Paper on an iPad wasn’t as much of a cognitive dissonance as I would’ve thought at first.

It also dovetailed eerily well with the next book I read, Exhalation by Ted Chiang. One of the common threads through the stories is that they take the premise of a radically new invention or discovery, and then speculate about the societal and personal changes that might result. One of the stories takes the idea of technologically-assisted perfect memories and compares it to European colonists introducing paper record-keeping to an African society with a long oral tradition.

Chiang’s stories create worlds that are either alternate universes, or extrapolations of our own universe after an inherently disruptive innovation or event. That would make them seem inherently incompatible with the idea that technological development is a long, ongoing process instead of the sudden, completely unprecedented, culture-shifting inventions that inventors and marketing firms often want us to believe. Several of the stories are based on familiar technology — AIs and digital pets, AR glasses, using our phones as digital recorders and “augmented memory” devices, quantum computers and a gradually growing popular awareness of the concepts behind quantum states — but I don’t think Chiang is taking the role of a futurist. Instead, he’s taking a fairly extreme interpretation and using it to explore the implications at a personal level, not a societal one.

Ultimately, the two books played surprisingly well off each other when read back-to-back. They have a similarly optimistic and humanist take on “disruptive” technology. They suggest that people are above all else adaptable, and the things that make us human are never completely changed by any technology. Paper, e-books, cell phones, sentient virtual pets, time portals, and alternate-reality communication machines may make our lives different, but not necessarily better or worse.

An invention that uses a negative time-delay circuit to flash a light before you push a button, however, would ruin absolutely everything.

That’s the larger through-line between the stories in Exhalation: fate vs free will, knowing vs not knowing, and how our choices are what define us as human beings. That’s a very reductive take on it, of course, which is especially a drag in this case, because it’s impressive how he can have so many stories exploring facets of similar concepts without them all feeling simplistic or repetitive. Similar to Stories of Your Life and Others, he’s able to take ideas rooted in “hard” science fiction or speculative fiction, form them into a premise that is rigorously and technically defined from the start, and then use all the implications from that premise to tell an often intensely personal story about our experience as humans.

And as a petty human, I should probably say that I didn’t enjoy Exhalation nearly as much as I did Stories of Your Life and Others, but I felt so much better after reading it. After I read the latter book, I felt drained, and inexplicably envious. For years I’ve heard people complain about Instagram causing them depression or wrecking their self-esteem; seeing beautiful and/or rich people living perfectly ordered and presented lives makes them feel inferior. And I’ve been sympathetic but never fully understood it, probably because I’ve never aspired to being rich or fashionable. But I finally understood it after reading Chiang’s first short story collection, in which he seemed to talk about theology, theoretical physics, and parenting all with complete understanding; could understand the full implications of a technological disruption while I was still trying to wrap my ahead around the initial premise; and balance his rigorously scientific hypotheses with deeply-felt emotional conclusions.

Exhalation, on the other hand, reads like a book written by an actual human being. The first story is wonderful, from concept to presentation, a story about fate and time travel that ingeniously borrows the One Thousand and One Nights conceit. And I don’t want to spoil anything, but I found the very end of the last story surprisingly poignant and beautiful, a perfect ending to the collection. But the rest seemed to vary from fine but straightforward, to overlong and somewhat tedious. There was nothing that left me confused or intimidated, but also nothing that left me particularly inspired.

Like I said, that’s a fairly petty and ego-driven take on the collection, but I think it’s a testament to Chiang’s talent that his writing can generate that kind of reaction. Ultimately it’s a pleasure to be able to read such a compassionate, empathetic, and hopeful work from a writer who’s that intelligent. And it pairs surprisingly well with Paper, another book about how humanity responds to the inventions and discoveries that we make.

2 thoughts on “Paper Exhalation”

  1. I LOVED Chiang’s work. Read both of those collections earlier this year, and they’ve all kinda blurred together, but it’s been a really long time since an author’s work made me so excited. Great stuff.

    1. Yeah, I thought his first collection was genius, but it also was strangely unsettling and intimidating. Like when I’m having conversations with people who I know are smarter than me, and I’m only fully understanding around 90% of what’s being said.

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