An illuminating look at the origins and impact of writing.
In this richly detailed cultural history, Battles (The Sovereignties of Invention, 2012, etc.), associate director of the research group metaLAB at Harvard, traces the evolution of writing from cuneiform in the fourth millennium B.C. to digital communications. Emerging as an accounting system in Mesopotamia, writing became evidence of power as well as a means of personal expression. It also changed the human mind; writing “exploits (and transforms) circuits in our brains….Writing teaches our brains to do all kinds of somersaults and tricks.” Besides communicating immediate needs, writing allows for the transmission of cultural knowledge, bears witness to the past, and influences the future. All writing, Battles has discovered, is composed of “lines that cross, connect, and loop, and they arrange themselves into linear sets,” whether it takes the form of Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or Greek, Sanskrit, or Cyrillic alphabets. Battles underscores the way writing shapes reading and thinking: “in the form of word and sentence, chapter and verse,” he asserts, “writing teaches.” The author highlights several texts as especially significant, including the saga Gilgamesh, unearthed from clay tablets, which imparted lessons about kingship and heroism that influenced later literature; and the Bible, which “hides its own writing from us in a haze of myths and mystical formulae.” Before the printing press, hand copying made all books—including the Bible—vulnerable to changes: “Each instance of book production was a reading, and an editing.” Movable type changed the production and availability of books, but early printed volumes allowed for ample margins so that illuminators could ply their craft. Battles deftly excavates layers of human history from a wide range of sources to reveal that writing “is always palimpsestic; there is no setting-down that is not a setting-among, a setting-upon.”
A fascinating exploration stylishly and gracefully told.