The Paper Age

October already!

I just finished reading Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books & Friendship in a Revolutionary Age by Daisy Hay, thanks to a couple of train journeys and a quiet evening alone at home. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s one of the mini-genre of books (like The Lunar Men) that paints a picture of an era’s ideas through a description of the people who gathered to talk and wirte and indeed paint about them. In this case it’s Britain of the 1770s to 1790s, and the centre – although an enigmatic character himself compared to some of his famous authors and illustrators – was Unitarian publisher Joseph Johnson. The central event giving the book its narrative arc is the French Revolution, and the subsequent crackdown on freedom of speech and worship by the British Government.

Anyway, the relevance here is this passage about a magazine started by Johnson, the Analytical Review (great title). One reviewer is quoted: “This is a PAPER AGE.” the book continues, “Paper had become the engine of Britain’s emergent capitalist economy, as banknotes, share certificates, contracts and promissory notes circulated out from London into the provinces and across the globe.” The magazine estimated that nine tenths of Britain’s trade relied on the medium of paper.

I suppose ours is an ELECTRON age. Although electrons, as Ed Conway makes so plain in the excellent Material World, depend entirely on a material substrate.

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