There’s No Such Thing as a Blank Page

But despite the influence of Locke’s metaphor, there is no such thing as a blank page – not only because claims of blankness miss the watermarks or the fibres or the chain-lines or the imperfections: presences which mean that writing is always an interruption of something already there, a disturbance in an existing order; it is never the beginning. But also because to insist on blankness is to erase the labour, and the history, etched into paper, a history of centuries of use, development, and refinement, in China, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and beyond. And as the poet and environmental activist Mandy Haggith reminds us, conceiving of paper as blankness means also forgetting the resources and the environmental costs on which paper depends: ‘We need to unlearn our perception of a blank page as clean, safe and natural and see it for what it really is: chemically bleached tree-mash.’ We need also to remember the ingenuity and work that lies behind, or within, or across, each page. As the print historian Jonathan Senchyne puts it, ‘Every sheet of paper is an archive of human labor.’ The story of Nicolas-Louis Robert – which is the story of someone being forgotten, of a presence fading to something like a watermark that can be glimpsed only with care, and in the right light – might serve as an enjoinder to look at, rather than through, paper.

From The Book-Makers by Adam Smyth, which I’m currently reading and a little more than halfway through. It’s an engaging, beautifully word-painted tour through the history of bookmaking, including some of the lesser-known innovations and figures.

Also, side note: I’m reading the physical edition of this book (and so should you, because to read an ebook version would be giggle-inducingly ironic), as I do with pretty much all books these days. But I used the Live Text feature on my iPhone to copy and paste the above passage for posting here, with very few errors that I needed to correct. Features like this—features that make it easier to interact with, share, and talk about the creative work of real humans, and to allow us real humans more time to do the real, physical creating—are what I want more of from AI. These are the technologies I was promised when I was introduced to Star Trek as a ten-year-old kid. I don’t want to send “delightful” AI-generated images “created just for me” to people in my text messages. I don’t want AI to make my writing “better” (I want reading, and sitting in the chair, writing, every single day that I can, for hours at a time, because I’m not distracted by algorithmically recommended content and incessant notifications and podcasts and videos full of pseudo-intellectuals and grifters trying to make a buck, to make my writing better). And I don’t want to interact with large language models trained on the scraping of unlicensed works of my fellow artists.