Ferrara capably conveys the sensory magic of writing: sound made visible and tangible.



A scholar of archaeology and linguistics leads us on “an uncharted journey, one filled with past flashes of brilliance, present-day scientific research, and the faint, fleeting echo of writing’s future.”

Deftly translated by Portnowitz, Ferrara’s book is more than a cook’s tour of the history, present, and future of writing. It’s so dense and detailed it could also serve as an academic text. “Writing is an entire world to be discovered, but it is also a filter through which to observe…our world: language, art, biology, geometry, psychology, intuition, logic,” writes Ferrara, a professor in the department of classical philology and Italian studies at the University of Bologna. She argues that the invention of writing as a complete and structured system derived from a series of gradual, cumulative, coordinated actions (and luck)—a cultural product, not an innate skill. Ferrara explores the creation of scripts (some yet to be deciphered) in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, Easter Island, Cyprus, and Mesoamerica, beginning with their origins as images, icons, and logograms. She reveals the enduring power of the alphabet and how learning to write and read are physically mind-altering, and she investigates why writing, a useful technology, if not a necessity, came about. The author offers fascinating historical accounts, observations (especially on today’s retro embrace of iconography), and deductions (at heart, the book is a detective story). She is thorough, perhaps to a fault. General readers may find the text too heavy on technical analysis. By contrast, Ferrara occasionally takes off on flights of giddy romanticism, though the scientist usually regains control. Her expertise and enthusiasm compensate for some of the pop-culture diversions, unbridled conjectures, and a few debatable assertions—e.g., “Collaboration is at the root of every modicum of progress ever gained”; “Art is not something that can be deciphered. It simply is.” Nonetheless, the author knows when to eschew overly definitive statements when it comes to the intersections of writing and language.

Ferrara capably conveys the sensory magic of writing: sound made visible and tangible.

Pub Date: March 1, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-374-60162-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 26, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2021

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

Did you like this book?

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.



Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

Did you like this book?