By: Matthew Battles
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
Publication Date: July 2016
Reviewed by: Janice Ladendorf
Review Date: July 22, 2016
This book is a collection of literary essays on the written word. While it does not provide a complete or chronological history of this subject, the author has some brilliant insights in the evolution of writing. The essays are tied together by two themes. One is the author's interest in the mechanics and potential of writing. The second is the author's use of palimpsest as a metaphor used to explain the evolution of writing and link it to the function of the human brain.
A palimpsest is a writing surface used and re-used over a long period of time. Whether the original text is effaced or partially erased, traces of it can still be seen. Early parchment was made out of animal skins and it could be washed and reused, but the original text could not be completely removed. These skins were the first palimpsests.
Art had to come before writing and real animals are painted on the walls in Paleolithic cave art. The author classifies these paintings as natural, enigmas, or casual. He suggests the natural ones were drawn by hunters who had to know their prey really well and the casual ones by adolescent boys bragging to each other. One of the enigmas is shown and is defined as a palimpsest with bison, boar, and horse superimposed.
Pictograms and ideograms came after pictures. They are symbolic representations of real objects or activities. Each one carries meaning both individually or in combination. They are the basis for cuneiform. In Mesopotamia this form of writing was first used for counting herds of animals, but it soon became a tool used by the powerful to proclaim their laws, judgments, and successes. Our modern alphabet is a step beyond this stage. Instead of hundreds or thousands of conventional symbols, it utilizes twenty four letters which become meaningful only as they are combined.
Pictograms and ideograms were also the basis for Chinese writing. For thousands of years, this system was used extensively by the government bureaucrats to keep required records. To the elite, calligraphy became an art form. The structure of this system emphasized inter relationships, rather than causal ones. In the nineteenth century, this structure interested various Americans, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ezra Pound was the first to apply it to poetry. To increase literacy, the Communist government has simplified this form of writing, but they kept its essential structure.
In the medieval world, literacy tended to be limited to religious institutions and scribes produced many beautiful works of art. Printing created a revolution in the use of the written world. It greatly reduced copying errors, encouraged the spread of literacy, and introduced upper case letters. One illustration in the text shows two pages, one from a medieval manuscript and one from Gutenberg's printing press. Although the letter forms differ, the layout and decoration are similar.
Computers caused the next revolution because their capabilities reduced the time required for the formerly tedious task of producing and printing written materials. Computers can only understand command codes. Several pages of such a code are printed in the text. What they contain is a mixture of words and special symbols. The symbols function as abbreviated instructions.
The subtitle of this book is somewhat misleading. There are many books available on the history of writing, but this is not one of them. What it does contain is literary essays which attempt to go beyond simple history. As the title suggests, they show how every innovation in the art of writing stands on what has gone before and traces of earlier stages are always present in later ones. The human brain also learns in stages and the earliest ones can never be completely overwritten.
Quill says: Palimpsest does include some interesting information, but it is buried in text which is not an easy read. The writing style suggests it is best suited to a literary or academic audience.