The Mortality of Paper

What do you do when your life's artifacts are ruined?

This past winter, while my family and I were in the middle of a move from the mountains of North Carolina to the suburbs of Des Moines, we got a call from the insurance agent working for our moving company. With all the cold weather, a water main had broken in the warehouse where our belongings were being stored. Our things had been flooded.

The insurance agent was particularly worried about our mattresses, but my first thought was to our books and our personal archives. We had 30 or 40 boxes of books and papers, accreted through college and graduate school and life. How were they doing? She couldn’t say. But the mattresses: Yes, she was very sorry those had had to be tossed. Didn’t we need new ones? Couldn’t she send us a check right now? What was the replacement value? We had just closed on our new house, but we were still living with our two kids in the basement of a member of my husband’s new church (he’s a pastor in the United Church of Christ). How much the mattresses were worth wasn’t a question we really felt capable of treating as urgent.

Repeated calls back and forth, over the course of the week, and my husband and I were unable to figure out anything about the state of the rest of our stuff, so we decided to go down to the warehouse ourselves. Let everything else be flooded, I thought as we drove over, it'll be okay as long as I still have this one box, the box with all the notes and cards and bits and pieces of my life from my twenties, the years of college and graduate school and marriage and the birth of our daughter. In that box were many of the letters and cards I’d received from my mother and grandmothers, now all dead.

When we got to the warehouse, we found that the damage wasn’t so bad, really. There were several boxes’ worth of books, soaked and freezing, strewn out across tables that had been shifted together out of plywood sheets and sawhorses. Most everything else was fine, or easily repaired or replaced. But of course, that box—the one box—was sodden. It was falling apart; the papers stuck together, ink running, and photos imparting their colors onto the sheets around them.

I couldn’t look at those papers. We worked our way through the books first, instead. Not salvageable, really, but we could make a record of what was lost. I walked around the makeshift tables in my down coat, tapping bibliographic data into the notes app on my husband’s iPod. Luckily and unluckily, the warehouse was unheated. The cold had caused the water main break in the first place, but it also arrested any further damage to the books and papers. With fumbling fingers, I tapped out authors, titles, sometimes publishers, just enough to identify the text, and where necessary, the edition. We hoped later to make a list with prices, for the insurance people. But so much of the value of these books, for us, was copy specific. What value could I place on the boxed set of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, picked up in high school during one of my early independent forays down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley? What about the special edition of The Scarlet Letter, with its menacing woodcuts, that my husband’s father gave him when he was twelve? Taking the texts alone, these weren’t our favorite novels, but we held these specific copies, and remembered where we were, and who we were, when we first picked them up.

Questions of value became even more acute when I finally turned to the box of papers, invaluable to me, yet worthless to the insurer. As a historian studying the destruction and preservation of papers and manuscripts in 16th- and 17th-century Britain, and as the daughter of an archivist, I've thought a lot about the value of paper, about what gets saved and what doesn't, and why. So much is destroyed, whether in the churn of religious violence (as during the Reformation in Britain) or in the business of everyday life. Paper, then made by boiling and beating linen rags (old underwear, mostly), has a mortal life: Its aging can be hurried or slowed, depending on how it’s treated, and its death can be mourned. It can't be preserved forever. The same goes for the parchment and vellum, made from the scraped and stretched hides of sheep and calves, on which medieval scribes wrote.

Early modern Britain was particularly hostile to the survival of papers and manuscripts; vast swathes of such materials were destroyed. Natural historians and philosophers—people we would call scientists, today—were particularly troubled by the loss of these materials, because at least some of them contained ancient and medieval scientific writings, troves of observations, data, and insights into the workings of the natural world. The destruction began when Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell closed down the Catholic monasteries and expropriated their land. The books were expelled from monastic libraries along with the monks. In the words of the natural historian John Aubrey, recorded in a manuscript he deposited at the Library of the Royal Society of London,  “the Manuscripts flew about like Butterflies.” Through the 17th century, religious and civil violence continued to trouble Britain, and papers and manuscripts were flushed out of college and personal libraries, as well. Only one copy of the medieval epic Beowulf, for example, survived these tumultuous centuries, and that one, now badly charred around the edges, barely made it through a fire in the early 18th century.

Once out of the libraries, manuscripts and papers weren’t simply destroyed, though; they were re-used in all kinds of ways. Students covered their books and shopkeepers wrapped parcels with old manuscript leaves still bright with decorated initial letters. Soldiers stuffed wads of paper down the barrels of their muskets to keep the bullets from falling out before they were fired. Paper was used to stop up the bungholes of kegs of beer, too. Educated investigators of nature—people like Aubrey—repeatedly noted the re-use of papers and parchments in the “lining of pies:” They went into the ovens underneath the stiff, high-sided meat pies that were mainstays of the early modern British diet.

When they weren’t bothering the cook with requests for pies, natural philosophers busied themselves recollecting and attempting to preserve what hadn’t already been destroyed. And they tried to see that their own papers, the vast collections of notes and correspondence they amassed over the course of their lives, were not dispersed in the first place. As a way of securing the survival of their collections, they endowed museums and libraries in which to deposit them after their deaths. We owe Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and the British Museum in London to this movement. Institutions like these replaced the monasteries as secular guardians of papers and parchments, the materials of knowledge-making.

Back in the warehouse, once I was done cataloguing our books, I turned back to that box of papers. I thought I might be able to salvage them, at least for a time. I didn’t have a museum, but I did have an empty house—a 1940s colonial on a street of them built, we’d heard, for John Deere junior executives come to work at the plant on the edge of town. We picked up some bath towels, a flat of document storage boxes, and a box of file folders, and I went to the house.

I spent most of that weekend there, carefully peeling sheets from each other so they wouldn’t rip, laying them out on the towels, waiting for them to dry, and reading. The empty house was filled with paper; the hardwood floors upstairs and downstairs lined with letters from my mother, with wedding programs, with cards sent when my daughter was born, with my own annotated copy of the words I had spoken at my mother's memorial service. In that house, for those days, as the cold January sun shone through the uncurtained windows, I was surrounded by the words of those whom I loved and who had loved me. As the papers dried, I reorganized and refiled them, bringing new order to what I had hastily stuffed away in a box when in my twenties. I began to see an upside to paper's mortality, its ability to be damaged.

To the natural philosophers of the 17th century, paper was a technology of memory and survival. It held out the promise of a life after death. Yet without proper care, papers barely outlived their owners. “You are not very young, & a mortall man,” wrote John Aubrey, nearing the end of his life, to his friend Anthony Wood. He wanted to will his papers to Wood, but he worried that when his friend died they would fall into the hands of an untrustworthy nephew, who would stop his guns with them or put them under pies. Aubrey was one of those who, in the end, deposited his papers in the Ashmolean Museum; they can still be consulted at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Paper’s promise of life after death still depends upon its finding a secure institutional home in which to lie protected from the accidents of flood, fire, and pie-baking.

Yet even under the best of conditions, what kind of immortality does paper offer? Dressed in their paper bodies, the voices of my mother and grandmothers were both near—just there beside me, inhabiting the house—but still impossibly far away. The letters my mother wrote to me in college—she sometimes kept one open over the weekends, filling it with conversation about church, visits with my grandmother, details of lunches in the city with my father and my brother—now seemed so reticent in their dailiness. I wanted them to disclose to me an inner life to which I no longer had access. Here was a resurrection of my memories, rather than of the dead themselves.

But, still, surrounded by those wet papers, turning crackly as they dried, I felt a moment of communion, imperfect as it was, with the dead and the living, materialized in paper. Safe in their box, those papers, and the voices recorded on them, hadn’t been present in my life. For a few days, released by the flood, they lived again.