'Palimpsest' beautifully charts the history of writing

Rich with captivating anecdotes and deep historical knowledge, Matthew Battles' exhilarating new book takes us from cuneiform tablets to the digital era.

Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word By Matthew Battles W.W. Norton 272 pp.

To call a piece of writing “polished” has become a lazy flourish, a critic’s cliché that barely registers as metaphor. But in the first-century Rome of Catullus, Cicero, and Caesar, papyrus and parchment manuscripts were often literally polished with a pumice stone, rubbed to a smooth perfection before being coated with cedar oil as protection against moths and worms.

When the poet Catullus used this physical process as a metaphor for the intellectual work of improving a text, his analogy relied on a cultural familiarity with practices we have forgotten. The novelty of his comparison is now obscured by two millennia of changes in the technologies of writing. Yet even in an age of digital composition, with characters that flicker across electronic screens at the behest of binary code, a vestige of the analog history of writing survives in one of the most common clichés of praise: Good writing is “polished.”

Similar excavation uncovers many other forgotten roots of writing. The word “character” derives from the ancient Greek word for a pointed stake, something that could be used to inscribe a mark on a surface; the verb “to write,” comes from Germanic terms for slicing and tearing. Thus “writing characters” was originally a physical act of iterative incisions, a fact preserved in the etymology of these very words.

These are only some of the fascinating examples explored in Matthew Battles’ exhilarating new book, Palimpsest: a History of the Written Word. His inquiry traverses a dizzying sweep of millennia, from the cuneiform tablets of ancient Mesopotamia to the invention of the printing press and modern computers, but he is an adroit narrator of complex cultural history, capable of enlivening and clarifying a difficult subject.

The earliest surviving written documents of ancient civilizations were earthy in both material and content. Clay furnished the surface on which letters and symbols were inscribed, and the earliest human-made signs were themselves reflections of things in the world. Battles sees European cave paintings of bison, boar, and horses as early instances of a representational impulse that would culminate in the austere abstractions of the alphabet.

The same playful and pragmatic urges that writing still satisfies are already present in Paleolithic paintings from 30,000 years ago. Some anthropologists argue that these images of animals conveyed valuable hunting knowledge, while others stress the exuberant artistic energy of the works. Even if writing has its origins in drawings that represent things in the world, an impressive degree of abstraction is necessary for any writing system to move beyond pictograms to symbols that denote the component sounds of words.

The ubiquity of bright blocky letters on the walls of preschools makes the alphabet seem synonymous with childhood, a simple part of intellectual infancy. It’s hard to see the alphabetic principle as one of the great intellectual achievements of our species for the same reason that it’s difficult to appreciate the novelty of Catullus’ metaphor of polished prose; their originality is buried beneath familiarity.

But consider the distinction between a picture of a particular animal and a symbol that denotes a type of animal. “A pictogram,” Battles writes, “is a picture not of a single thing but a kind of thing. It arrives as an analysis, a mapping, and a classification.” Because pictograms stand for kinds of things, they enable both universal and hypothetical statements.

Another leap of abstraction must occur before pictograms lose their visual resemblance to things in the world and transform into the shapes of letters that represent sounds. But the pictorial origins of letters are still faintly apparent.

“Even in today’s abstract and decadent alphabet, written figures resemble tracks and trees, bones, houses, and ants,” Battles writes. This persistence of earlier forms in later systems is precisely what makes a palimpsest such a wonderful governing metaphor for the book. An actual palimpsest is a kind of linguistic archaeological site: a manuscript where layers of different texts text are superimposed over time.

The history of writing is a figurative palimpsest in its constant recycling of older forms that remain visible in later permutations. Early epics and religious texts are littered with traces of the oral cultures that preceded them: mnemonic aids built into the narrative structures, acoustic rhythms in the texts, and sometimes their very titles – the word Koran likely derives from the Arabic term for recitation.

Printed books in the Renaissance incorporated decorative and design elements from the scribal manuscripts of the Middle Ages. And digital reading devices strive diligently to re-create the look and feel of the physical books they’re replacing.

But despite the extraordinary expressive potential of the written word, the initial impetus for the invention of writing may have been the dull demands of royal recordkeeping. The Linear B tablets of the Mycenaean Greeks, for instance, preserve none of the beautiful myth-encrusted poetry of the Homeric epics that emerged roughly 500 years later; the tablets are simple administrative records tallying bushels of grain, herds of sheep, wagon wheels, and other commodities.

The same is true of the even earlier cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamian cities. Documents of imperial tax collection challenge any romantic narrative about writing as an expression of human creativity that culminates in high literary language. But even if writing began as a technology of empire, a means of regulating subjects and goods, it was soon co-opted as an instrument of lyric and epic poetry, political philosophy, scientific inquiry, and an infinity of other cultural expressions.

It would be a sad irony for a book on writing not to delight in the pleasures of polished and poetic prose. But Battles is a gifted stylist, and his history of writing is both a paean to the powers of language and an extended demonstration of his own prowess. Nearly every page features an example of beautiful writing about writing. Like this: “writing proposes itself as  – a vast constellary system glimmering in the dark, providing guidance, charting the heavens, and inspiring new and ever-proliferating structures of imagination.”

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