Saturday, February 1, 2014

Sir Aurel Stein and paper's 2000-year road

I went to the craft store last week to find paper by the pound. I wanted to write out a poem for my granddaughter (due to be born March 12). Used to be I could find sheets of this stationery in 100s of colors with matching envelopes at this store and another, which has closed. I could buy one sheet or twenty, one envelope or many, and I could mix and match colors at a whim. The system fit my dislike of prepackaging. Plexiglass shelving units are there where the paper used to be, but now they are filled with scrapbooking paper. I can infer from this that people are creating scrapbooks about their lives, but they're not writing letters about them on paper to friends and family.

That's not a surprise, and I'm grateful when we can preserve trees, minimize waste and all of that, but I felt the loss of all that paper, of the colors and the ability to send someone special a letter written with a black ink art pen and a few doodles and sketches inserted here and there like we do emoticons now. I have not done this more than once or twice in at least a decade, whereas in the 1970s and 80s I did it often. But I felt a twinge that this product was not available, that people — including me — are not writing letters, and that already a valuable part of my life is past.

Obviously this is not a new topic. It could be that I found this more meaningful because last week I had also read about the origins of paper. I had been under the false idea that paper began with papyrus in Egypt. Although the word "paper" came from "papyrus," paper did not come from the papyrus plant and originated as a pulp papermaking process in China in around 100AD.

Below is a Sogdian scrap again (see last post), but this time it is a piece of the famous Ancient Letters, discovered in 1907 by Sir Aurel Stein, Hungarian-born British citizen, in one of the watchtowers of the Chinese frontier wall (Great China Wall). The Sogdian script derived from Aramaic. These pieces of the Ancient Letters are the oldest existing scraps of paper. Stein thought they were from the decades after the inception of paper, but researchers don't see confirmation of that and believe they could be from the 4th century.

piece of one of the five Ancient Letters
in Sogdian script
photo at Silk Road Foundation,
The International Dunhuang Project

"The group consists of five almost complete letters and a number of fragments of similar letters. Each letter was folded several times and bore the names of the sender and addressee on the outside. Most were tied with string; one letter was wrapped in silk and enclosed in an envelope of coarse cloth addressed to Samarkand, 2000 miles to the west. From the letters themselves it may be deduced that at least two were written in Tun-huang [Dunhuang] and one in Kutsang. The inference that they represent the contents of a “mailbag” lost or abandoned in transit from east to west accords well with the general tenor of the letters, which seem to consist largely of reports to wealthy Sogdian merchants by their representatives abroad." — Encyclopaedia Iranica

Lime Watch Towers, photo by Sir Aurel Stein, 1914
Photo 392/28(479), © The British Library Board
photo from V&A
Dunhuang, China, wiki map

Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943), archeologist, explorer, geographer
wiki photo
Stein found the Ancient Letters and also purchased many discovered manuscripts, including a stash of 500 cubic feet of bundled manuscripts — 10,000 documents and painted scrolls — happened upon by Buddhist monk Wang Yuanlu at Dunhuang. Stein paid him one hundred and thirty pounds.

Paper by the pound! OK, forgive me for that. In this age of digitization, the value of paper is in debate, but as archeological find, it becomes more precious. One can't help wondering what daily paper documents will be left in 50 or 100 years, and if all the world's known books really will be in digital format, available to the masses, thanks to Google Books and other initiatives.

As for my poem and writing it out for my grandchild, I found a cellophane-wrapped package of 5 x 8" card stock that fits the purpose well. When she's my age, if she still has the poem, how strange will it be, and how valuable in an archeological sense? I never met my biological grandmothers and grandfathers, and I know how much I would treasure anything written by hand from them to me.


  1. There is something terribly sad about the growing demise of paper. I think of the several, treasured handwritten letters that were written by my ancestors during the civil war, and which are now in my possession. I think of the unadulterated pleasure of writing script on a fresh piece of paper. I think of the sense of intimacy one gets from reading a letter that flows from the writer's hand and heart to the reader's eye and heart. I think of how on earth we will ever be able to make sense of our history —the tactile, sensory part of history — when all we have are computers that translate bits and bytes for us. Am I hopelessly romantic? Oh yes!

    1. George, Inge and I often talk about the act of handwriting, especially poems, which for her feels more connected to the heart, like a line from fingers up the arm around the shoulder and across to that feeling organ. You have a treasure in those letters of your ancestors, and it's beautiful that you know it (and have written about it, I'm guessing, in the volume of your family history). I don't know where we're going, but let's hope there are other hopelessly romantic people like us who will keep being born.

  2. Yes, I'm in sympathy with all of this, and romanticise inconsolably about the loss of those hand-written messages. I'm reading printed and published letters and journals all the time — by people such as DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf for instance — who wrote these originally in longhand, and what's astonishing is how frequently and enthusiastically and imaginatively they wrote; in the case of DHL several letters a day, (as well as pursuing his own novels, poems etc.), posting them from add corners of the world with no idea of when he'd get a reply, travelling constantly, scrubbing the floor, cleaning the house and making clothes and furniture (Frieda was never terribly good at that)…

    Though it's interesting how things change. I tend to feel much more comfortable these days trying out words and ideas (for poems for instance) with a pen or pencil on paper (lots of crossings out, arrows, and gobbledygook), but then formulating and fine-editing and polishing on digital Word, and feeling very glad I have that facility.

    However, there's no substitute for the hand-written word. I have my mother's pen-and-ink journals on the shelf here next to me, and they are absolutely priceless. The emotional connection is tangible.

    1. Robert, you have your mother's pen-and-ink journals on the shelf there next to you? Oh my. I wonder, did she bequeath them to you? This is something else Inge and I talk about, what happens to our journals? She has labored over this, and what her son Piet would want with hers? Not that she would mind, she would love it. But it's difficult for the person whose journals they are to imagine her child wanting them. And yet ...

      Yes! All those letters, poems and books written out in longhand. (And on scraps of paper if legends are to be believed about Jane Austen.) I think of Clarissa which I relished year before last, all thousand pages of it, all epistolary, written in longhand originally by Samuel Richardson. (Then there's Rumi, who apparently dictated poems to a scribe.)

      I do marvel at it, and I also think the mindset must have been quite different from my own. Expectations for a day, for instance. Of course the housework was more labor intensive and time consuming (as you point out for DHL), but I am guessing, I could be very wrong, that the same expectations for productivity and accomplishment may not have pervaded. Were they more, were they less?

      As for me and writing poems, only at the outset, back in the early 90s, did I begin them on paper with a pen, though I still jot notes in a small notebook in my purse or on any paper handy. I see a new white page of a Word doc as just as beautiful as a clean piece of paper. And because I want the ability to revise, rearrange words, lines or whole stanzas, I love the process in Word. What's important is that the writer feels connected with her heart, in any way that works best. I love seeing the scrips, scratches and gobbledygook of writers!

  3. We have other considerations in the art of letter-writing in longhand. The aesthetics of it, as George points out, the tactile intimacy with a person's handwriting. Something opens up between people who write letters like this. Then there is the waiting for a letter, as Robert pointed out. Back in the day, or between continents, it could take weeks or even months for a letter to arrive. While that seems unimaginable in today's cyber-world, there is something also very human and organic about a letter actually traveling across distance. It's not unlike walking, I think, to get somewhere, as opposed to riding or flying. I think about this a lot ... what is the perfect human pace? It varies, of course, by person and situation.

    So imagining these periods and eras in history when traders traveled by foot, camel, horse and letters were carried the same way, and how much we learn from them, there is some reassurance in it. The electronic correspondence we do can be rich, and it is. But I think if we didn't have our blogs, with all their creative and beautiful visual expressions of ourselves, the ways we represent ourselves beyond the typed words — which themselves are individual and unique — we wouldn't feel that enough has been "said" about us.

    Ha, maybe we should start a letter-writing campaign. I'm all for it. :)

    1. All interesting stuff, Ruth. BTW, thought you might like to read this from one of the blogs listed on my sidebar, The Forest Garden:

    2. ! Thank you ! Rich, rich, rich and soul-filling.

      Can you believe her beautiful writing corner? The light. The design. The color. The inspiration!

  4. Ohhh, Ruth. I hope Peter and Andrea will understand the importance of what you are doing for Olive and will start a treasure chest of "gifts" from G'ma Ruth. Please put the bug in their ear.

    I had started sending postcards to Nicholas from all the places where I had traveled and so wanted Amy to understand the importance of keeping them for him. It never happened...and that's when I realized we live in a different world now. What really matters to us is often of little concern to them. It's actually very sad...and I felt that as I read this post.

    Do you remember how Dad collected pads of paper...especially the ones with lines? I definitely inherited that one from him! :)

  5. Ruth I had not realized your had a new blog – I like it very much. I read all the posts and love them all. So you will be a grandmother again? How wonderful. I have 4 grandchildren now, 3 boys (7,5 and 2) and one granddaughter who is 8 months old. I send them postcards from all the cities we visit, or even from Georgia, and I bought each of them a large box to keep them in. For now I am writing in caps, but will change into my regular cursive writing later – if they can study Chinese characters, then they should be able to read my writing. I read that “Forty-one states have so far adopted the new Common Core State Standards for English which does not require cursive” so future generations won’t be able to read letters anyway…so sad. As it is so many people don’t send cards anymore, or even emails, just a short sentence on Facebook. My husband has a Facebook page which he has not looked at in a year since he forgot his password (because of his illness.) Yesterday was his birthday and he received no card or emails – but I heard that messages where on his Facebook page – which he could not see but would have loved to receive a card. I still receive postcards from my friends in France, but that’s about it, no one else sends postcards anymore – I am pleased I have my collection of vintage postcards.

    We love paper in our house – books everywhere, postcards, posters, prints, lithographs, magazines, family photographs, our life would be so different without paper. I do read some books on my Kindle but there is nothing like the feeling of paper when reading an old book. I have been reading books from early last century – 1920s, and have enjoyed it a lot.

  6. First of all, this is fascinating -- as you might guess, I love paper of all kinds. I have paper I've bought I just look at because it is so beautiful. So reading of its origins is a subject near and dear and one I confess to be relatively ignorant about, despite the end product being a passion.

    What is also a passion is handwritten letters. Cards will do -- I treasure the ones I have. But the handwritten ones -- what a story they tell. What will be like when the emailed love letters of a no-longer love are deleted? I suppose historically nothing -- unless they happen to belong to one (or two) people who become historically significant, the subject of biographies and research. I think of the notes between parents and wonder if their children will ever know a certain part of those who preceded them in life. I can't bear to have the electronic reading pad yet, I will still send written thank you notes and cards with notes inside. The net is good -- it keeps us in touch. But to open the envelope and read the handwritten words brings a whole new meaning to keeping in touch.

    Your sweet baby will cherish that poem one day. It will survive. Trust me.


Think of this box as an oasis, a caravanserai where we're having a conversation. :)