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A world without paper

Published January 2013

Paper is one of our most ubiquitous commodities. So much so that perhaps we hardly even notice it any more. But can you imagine a world without paper? In his latest book, Paper, an Elegy, Professor Ian Sansom mourns and celebrates our changing relationship with this both vulnerable and durable commodity.

A stack of paperWe live in a paper world. Without paper our lives would be unimaginable. Or almost unimaginable. We can, of course, imagine it, as we can imagine anything, for the great writers and artists and musicians have taught us to imagine, in their books, and their paintings, and through their music. We have been trained by them, educated by them on paper, and through paper, and by paper to imagine. So it’s easy to imagine a world without paper. Like being dead, or never having been born.

We arise, wash, and go to the toilet - though without toilet paper, obviously. We enjoy a bowl of cereal, unpackaged, naturally. Tea: no bags. Coffee: no filter. We do not buy a newspaper on our way to the train station: there are no newspapers to buy. And, besides, we have no money. So, no lottery ticket. No chewing gum: no wrapper. No ticket for the train - which, anyway, has no timetable. (We’ll assume, just for fun, that there is a train, and a train station, and a house, and an office or workplace to go to - although without plans and schedules and surveys and backs-of-envelopes and blue-prints and patents and maps and graphs, all of this is of course highly unlikely, not impossible, but about as likely as you being able to read these words without ever having read or written anything on a piece of paper.)

We certainly shall not gaze at advertisements on the train, or at hoardings or billboards. Nor buy a cup of take-away coffee, in a take-away coffee cup, protected by a take-away coffee cup sleeve, and our non-existent loyalty card can remain forever lost, forgotten and unstamped. Nor do we post our mail: there is no Post Office. So no Amazon packages. Nor do we spend our days printing out emails, filing papers in folders, filling in forms, surrounded by familiar wallpaper and family photos, sticking up Post-It notes, or writing ‘documents’ on screen and ‘filing’ them in ‘folders’. Nor do we read a magazine or a paperback at lunchtime, while eating a sandwich neither wrapped nor carried in paper, our greasy hands untouched by a paper napkin. At no point in the afternoon do we file our nails with an emery board, fix our make-up or blow our noses with a tissue. No cupcake cases, no cake boxes. No business cards. No bills. No banks. No building societies. No insurance companies. A little industry, perhaps, a little government. Maybe some law and order. But certainly we smoke no cigarettes, wipe no bottoms with a wet wipe, wrap no presents, nor mark, correct or assist with any homeworks, read no menus, send no Christmas cards, pull no crackers, light no fireworks ...

"Paper" book coverImagine for a moment that paper were to disappear? Would anything be lost? Everything would be lost.

Further reading

Other books by Ian Sansom:

The Enthusiast Field Guide to Poetry (Quercus, 2007)

The Enthusiast Almanack (Quercus, 2006)

Ring Road (4th Estate/Harper Collins, 2004)

The Truth About Babies (Granta, 2002)

The Mobile Library series of novels.


Educated at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Professor Ian Sansom is a former Research Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He taught for a number of years at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Queen’s University, Belfast, and now teaches at the University of Warwick.

He was a founder and editor of the magazine The Enthusiast. He has been a columnist for The Guardian and has written also for The Irish Times, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The London Review of Books, The Spectator, and The New Statesman. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous international magazines and journals, including The New York Times. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4.

Professor Sansom’s latest book, Paper: An Elegy, is a timely meditation on the very paper it’s printed on. The first in a new series of novels, The County Guides: Norfolk (4th Estate/Harper Collins) is due for publication in June 2013.

You can follow Professor Sansom on Twitter @ian_sansom.


Published with kind permission of Harper Collins