May 12, 2016 6:43 AM EDT

It’s o.k. if you’re reading this on a screen. The medium matters less than expected for a book called Paper, according to Mark Kurlansky, master of the mononymous title (Cod, Salt).

In popular legend, paper was invented in 105 C.E. by Cai Lun, a eunuch in the Chinese court, and over the next 2,000 years spread ideas and changed the world, thanks largely to Gutenberg. Kurlansky says that’s all wrong–and not just because paper predates Cai Lun. That inventions create social change is what he calls a “technological fallacy.” In his view, the world changes first and tools stick if they meet its new needs. Same goes for the digital tools of a potentially paperless age.

Kurlansky argues convincingly that his subject gets too much credit, at the risk of diminishing his book. Luckily for readers, it’s littered with amazing facts, like why early paper mills smelled bad (urine was a key ingredient) and how Japan tried in 1944 to attack the U.S. with bombs carried by paper balloons. Kurlansky’s is one of a few recent histories of paper, including The Paper Trail by Alexander Monro. Is this because it feels like paper’s page is turning?


This appears in the May 23, 2016 issue of TIME.

Write to Lily Rothman at

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