Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award 2011
THE PAPER TRAIL is the story of how a Chinese invention revolutionized written knowledge across Eurasia, from its birth in China two thousand years ago to the printing explosion that galvanised Europe fifteen hundred years later.
It is a journey through politics and religion, as leaders in both spheres ally with paper to ensure ideological influence or domination. This is not a story concerned with a technology for its own sake but, instead, with the profound impact that technology enjoyed and the possibilities it awakened, as knowledge experienced a series of explosions from East to West. It is a journey of stops and starts, since paper-making in any significant quantity remained limited to East Asia for seven centuries, then spread rapidly through the Abbasid Caliphate to embed the Koran, Koranic commentaries and theological debates in the cultures of the Dar al Islam. Finally it twinned with printing in Europe to feed the Renaissance demand for books, and thereby allow Reformation ideas to gain currency, and “heretical” scientific ideas to gain ground as a new knowledge culture emerged, driven by commerce and, in time, a reading public, rather than by Rome.
This book will therefore be the story of how an obsession with the past and with learning led to the invention of paper, sparking a series of explosions of knowledge that led from second century China to sixteenth century Europe, where the story climaxed with a printing-driven knowledge revolution focused on the three great founding fathers of European modernity – the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. Along its path lay several crucial staging posts – in effect a series of big bang moments that sent knowledge to ever-greater audiences – granting to the book an entirely new order of power and, to those who could control its production, sway over the minds of their subjects, compatriots or religious devotees.
Alex Monro was born in London and studied Modern European Languages at Durham University. He first lived in China as a student in 2002 and returned as part of an M Phil in Chinese Language and Politics at the University of Cambridge. He has remained focussed on China and the region ever since.
He has worked as an arts and features writer for Reuters in Shanghai, and as a political risk consultant (focused on China) at Trusted Sources in London. He continues to write on contemporary China.
Monro contributed a chapter on Genghis Khan to The Seventy Great Journeys in History (2006), published by Thames and Hudson, and three chapters to The Dragon Throne (2008), a history of China’s dynasties (Quercus). He has edited two poetry anthologies for the travel publisher Eland. The second of these, China: City and Exile (2011), is a collection of translated classical Chinese poetry.
In 2011 he won the Royal Society of Literature’s Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction, for his first full-length book, The Paper Trail.