Paper Before Print


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The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World

Jonathan Bloom


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Like the printing press, typewriter, and computer, paper has been a crucial agent for the dissemination of information. This engaging book presents an important new chapter in paper’s history: how its use in Islamic lands during the Middle Ages influenced almost every aspect of medieval life. Focusing on the spread of paper from the early eighth century, when Muslims in West Asia acquired Chinese knowledge of paper and papermaking, to five centuries later, when they transmitted this knowledge to Christians in Spain and Sicily, the book reveals how paper utterly transformed the passing of knowledge and served as a bridge between cultures.

Jonathan Bloom traces the earliest history of paper—how it was invented in China over 2,000 years ago, how it entered the Islamic lands of West Asia and North Africa, and how it spread to northern Europe. He explores the impact of paper on the development of writing, books, mathematics, music, art, architecture, and even cooking. And he discusses why Europe was so quick to adopt paper from the Islamic lands and why the Islamic lands were so slow to accept printing in return. Together the beautifully written text and delightful illustrations (of papermaking techniques and the many uses to which paper was put) give new luster and importance to a now-humble material.

Jonathan M. Bloom, Norma Jean Calderwood University Professor of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College, is coauthor of The Art and Architecture of Islam, also published by Yale University Press.

“A very ambitious book of wide intellectual scope and down-to-earth relevance to the humanities—not just to the study of Islamic culture. It is brimful of ideas and fizzes with life.”—Robert Hillenbrand, University of Edinburgh

“A learned, rich, readable, and provocative work.”—Choice

“A fascinating cultural and historical examination that is beautifully complemented by detailed reproductions of maps and manuscripts.”—Christies (Website)

“Jonathan Bloom traces the history of paper and explores the impact of paper on the development of writing, books, mathematics, music, art, architecture and even cooking, and he discusses why Europe was so quick to adopt paper from the Islamic lands and why the Islamic lands were slow to accept printing in return.”—Discourse

"A refreshing history. . . . Bloom offers a compelling perspective of the humble and indispensable contributions of Islamic culture to Western society."—Jake Benson, Hand Papermaking

Paper Before Print is a sumptuous book, beautifully illustrated, lucidly written, and meticulously researched: its bibliography runs to thirteen pages.”—Guy Davenport, Harper’s Magazine

“By taking a technological perspective, Bloom has added greatly to our understanding of how medieval Islamic civilization was so successful, shone so brightly, and was able to advance along a broad front. The outcome is a fine piece of scholarship, the influence of which should be felt for many years. Yale University Press is to be congratulated, too, for matching this achievement with a well-produced and well-illustrated book that greatly enhances the argument.”—Francis Robinson, Isis

“This book is a comprehensive and analytical view of everything involving paper, including the origins of papermaking and its spread from China to the rest of Afro-Eurasia. The main emphasis, however, is the effect of paper on the medieval Islamic world. . . . The book is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of samples of parchment, papyrus, and paper. The technical information makes the otherwise abstruse production of papyrus, parchment, felt, paper, and molds easier for a non-expert to understand.”—Farid overshadowed, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“This luxuriously produced and most satisfying history ought to be bought by every self-respecting library and by every lover of books.”—Hazhir Teimourian, Literary Review

“Bloom explores paper’s early evolution and use. . . . Accompanying Bloom’s elegant prose are 48 color plates and 53 b&w illustrations—of maps, illustrated texts of Islamic poetry, pages of the Koran and papermaking techniques.”—Publishers Weekly

“Bloom gives the reader ample reason for a change of mind about the importance of this apparently humble product of human ingenuity. . . . Bloom writes very engagingly, with the odd crinkle of wry wit, drawing together an immense range of materials. . . . This is a beautifully designed and executed volume. . . . Bloom has made a first rate contribution that pays fitting homage to the unpretentious nobility of its subject.”—John Renard, Religion and the Arts

Paper Before Print asks students of cultural geography to consider the interaction between industry and art. . . . In a history of paper, we are asked to think about traditional art forms and ‘visual literacy,’ communication and calculation, innovation and circulation. These ideas proved, as does paper, the background for an erudite study of Islamic culture that offers readers a chance to question the mechanism of change and explore the impact of an invention ‘overshaadowed’ by its most powerful offspring, printing.”—Christopher Pastore, Sixteenth Century Journal

“Bloom’s book takes a major step forward in paper studies, venturing well beyond technical and production history into the cultural, social, and economic consequences of that history.”—Marianna Shreve Simpson, Speculum

“This is a book of uncommon quality, both in thought and in production. It will equally inform the historian of technology, the Islamicist, and the art historian. . . . It should be recognized as a major contribution to the world history of technology in general. Hats off the Jonathan Bloom.”—Richard W. Bulliet, Technology & Culture

"[Paper before Print] provides a highly readable introduction to a millennium of the civilisation that has enriched half the world."—Peter Daniels, Times Higher Education Supplement

"Jonathan Bloom writes with an elegant lightness of touch and his arguments, by and large, convince. Paper before Print is beautifully illustrated and produced, a tribute to the art of paper-making in its own right. . . . This book will surely become fundamental to the discussion of Islamic art and literary culture."—Hugh Kennedy, Times Literary Supplement

Winner of the 2003 Charles Rufus Morey Prize given by the College Art Association

Runner-up for the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize

Received an honorable mention for the 2002 Albert Hourani Book Award given by the Middle East Studies Association

Winner of  the 2002 Alpha Sigma Nu National Jesuit Book Awards
ISBN: 9780300089554
Publication Date: October 11, 2001
320 pages, 8 1/4 x 10 1/2
53 b/w + 48 color illus.

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