A History of Writing


British calligrapher Clayton (Arts, Design and Media/Univ. of Sunderland) embarks on an enormous undertaking: the history of the written word.

From Egypt circa 1850 B.C. to Xerox PARC in California, where the author lent his typographical expertise in the early days of the computer, Clayton’s narrative is necessarily both mind-numbingly specific and vastly general. Moreover, he mostly ignores all but the Greco-Roman tradition from which our own writing descends, devoting very little space to early printing in China and Korea. As a calligrapher, Clayton waxes rapturously on the craft of writing and how cultural shifts have informed the “concept of an alphabet as an interrelated system of proportional forms.” This proceeded from the era of the Greeks’ trading with Phoenician cities, when they adapted their writing from syllabic to the latter’s simpler alphabet. Eventually, Greek “monoline” (all letters having the same thickness) dovetailed into Roman inscription, which used fuller, more sophisticated forms. Everyday writing emerged from official documents, giving way to quicker, cursive scripts and rounder uncials, the precursor to lowercasing. Clayton emphasizes the importance of literacy to the rich periods of writing development—e.g., in the A.D. fourth century, citizens of Rome enjoyed a wide variety of libraries; the early Christian monks and scholars like Eusebius created a new method of book production; Charlemagne instituted a new era of administrative discipline in which the influential “Carolingian minuscule” was adopted; and Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press helped spur the Protestant Reformation. Hand in hand with the evolution of writing went paper and quill pens, and Clayton spills plenty of ink over these devices. He dwells fondly on the craftsmen who created the gorgeous fonts that bear their names and how periods of rich letter writing gave way to the ascendancy of newspapers, advertising and the “mechanical interventions” of the Industrial Revolution. However, even as the digital age took off, the computer continued to require elegant topography.

A four-millennia trajectory that nearly overwhelms with its incremental magnitude.

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-61902-242-3
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2013


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