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Review of Lothar Muller, 'White Magic: The Age of Paper'

When assessing scholarly books, pleasure is not normally a factor, any more than flavor is in judging medicines. Calling a monograph enjoyable is, after all, at best an expression of personal judgment. At worst, it’s a breach of the “professional professorial asceticism” that Pierre Bourdieu identified as definitive for Homo academicus.

But what the hell. A columnist has no other protocol to meet than deadline, so let the enthusiasm roll: Lothar Müller’s White Magic: The Age of Paper (Polity) is the most enjoyable scholarly book I’ve read in a while, despite my initial suspicion that it would be just one more example of the the rather hackneyed genre of middlebrow cultural histories with titles like Salsa: The Condiment That Changed Everything.

White Magic is, just to be clear, a serious work in the field of media studies. Müller, a professor of general and comparative literature at the Free University of Berlin, follows through on the implications of the Canadian historian Harold Innis’s work in a more cogent and coherent way than Innis’s best-known follower, Marshall McLuhan, ever did. The bibliography is broad and dense, and the text moves between economic and technological history and literary works in ways that shed light in all directions.

That said: what a great read! It is a book to warm up the brain on a day of mental fog. It’s possible to open up White Magic at random and find a piece of historical information or analysis that is interesting and suggestive in its own right, elaborated in prose that develops its points clearly, with none of the anxious tics (“unfortunately there is not space here to examine...”) that come from straining to establish authority without having the confidence to exercise it.

First published in Germany three years ago, and now published for the first time in English, White Magic continues the drawn-out effort to understand the changes in publishing, and in society at large, wrought by digital communication. Besides his academic position, Müller is editor of the features section of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, a newspaper. That’s certainly one way to experience the ongoing epochal shift of recent years up close and personally.

But White Magic isn’t a defense of print media, or even a eulogy. It challenges the perspectives embedded in the familiar grand narrative of an age of print, dawning with the invention of movable type, that has entered its twilight with the advent of the digital age. Perhaps the best way to introduce Müller’s point is to consider our presuppositions about Gutenberg’s innovation.

The familiar story is that his press made it possible to produce, at much greater speed and in far larger quantity, texts that in earlier centuries would have been copied by hand onto papyrus, parchment or vellum. From scroll to codex to bound volume, there was a continuity in the history of the book -- changes in format tending to make books more durable, with Gutenberg introducing the catalytic factor of mass production.

And very often the story then continues by recounting the intense, even convulsive impact of all that speedy production of writing in bulk: journalism, pamphleteering, the Protestant reformation, etc.  

But imprinting ink on a surface with movable type required that the material it was printed on possess certain qualities (especially standard dimensions and consistent smoothness, but also resilience under pressure from metal type) and that it be available reliably and in great bulk. To put it another way, Gutenberg’s invention depended on a still earlier invention, paper, which was itself a mass-produced commodity, turned out in protofactories that represented sizable investments as well as wide distribution networks.

How paper manufacture was invented in China, perfected by the Arabs and eventually adopted throughout Europe is an exemplary piece of transnational history -- and given Inside Higher Ed’s audience, it’s worth noting the huge impact on university budgets, almost from the moment there was such a thing. “To free itself from dependence on paper dealers from Lombardy,” Müller writes, the University of Paris “successfully petitioned the king in 1354 for the right to run paper mills” of its own, operated by craftsmen “who had the status of university employees.”

That was well after Italian universities found a way around the costly reproduction of textbooks, circa 1200, by authorizing the transcription of costly parchment books as paper editions that “would be split into smaller pieces by book dealers or stationers, who would rent out the pieces to students.” Then the students would make their own copies or hire a scribe to do it for them.

Paper was a dynamic commodity. The supply created its own demands, accelerating if not creating bureaucracy and postal networks even before the printing press came on the scene. Müller’s chronicle of these developments and their cumulative impact is rich in detail but surprisingly brisk in the telling.

The significance of this history, the author explains, comes from the fact that “paper was never on its own; it always sought a symbiosis with other media.” We often talk about communication technologies in ways that stress conflict, forced obsolescence, the replacement of one medium by another.

“But media history also encompasses effects of resonance amplification and the symbiosis and feedback between media which have not become technologically integrated but instead react to and cooperate with one another as distinct, separate spheres.”

In Müller’s interpretation, paper stands as “a virtuoso of substitution... insinuating itself into existing patterns and routines” -- very much like digital communication itself, so often taken to be paper’s antithesis.

The translator, Jessica Spengler, has made the unusual choice to leave the Teutonic sprawl of Müller’s paragraphs intact, rather than breaking them up into pieces of less formidable size. A few run for three pages or more, and even the shorter ones sometimes read like miniature essays. While expansive, though, the paragraphs are lean. (Müller seems to have ignored Walter Benjamin’s tongue-in-cheek advice to academic authors: “Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.... A number of opponents all sharing the same argument should each be refuted individually.”) White Magic is a remarkably concentrated book; that, I think, is why it will likely prove a re-readable one.

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Survival guide for interviewing at the Modern Language Association annual meeting (essay)

A year out from his own run through the annual meeting gauntlet, Christopher Garland offers tips on being prepared, impressing the search committee -- and avoiding that last-minute meltdown in the elevator.

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