A profound, eloquent meditation on the history of writing, from Mesopotamia to multimedia.
Why does writing exist? What does it mean to those who write? Born from the interplay of natural and cultural history, the seemingly magical act of writing has continually expanded our consciousness. Portrayed in mythology as either a gift from heroes or a curse from the gods, it has been used as both an instrument of power and a channel of the divine; a means of social bonding and of individual self-definition. Now, as the revolution once wrought by the printed word gives way to the digital age, many fear that the art of writing, and the nuanced thinking nurtured by writing, are under threat. But writing itself, despite striving for permanence, is always in the midst of growth and transfiguration.
Celebrating the impulse to record, invent, and make one's mark, Matthew Battles reenchants the written word for all those susceptible to the power and beauty of writing in all of its forms.
Battles (The Sovereignties of Invention) makes a dazzling foray into the history of text, from cuneiform to computer screens, narrating the evolution of the written word in captivating detail. The book begins with the appearance of writing in fourth-century B.C.E. Mesopotamia and proceeds through the invention of the codex by early Christians, the dissemination of manuscripts, and the history of printing. Drawing on accounts from varied cultures and eras, Battles finds that Socrates compared rhetoric to the planting and sowing of seeds, and that the fourth-century C.E. Chinese poet Su Hui conceived of writing as a "perceiving-through: a look through a window or a lens." Battles also explores the insidious link between writing and power, using Great Expectations to illustrate writing's liberating effects. Elsewhere, he quotes A Room of One's Own on writing as a system that can "absorb the new into the old" without tearing the fabric of the whole. In the digital age, computer code represents a new kind of writing, though one not visible to most readers. In the end, Battles powerfully demonstrates that, though all forms of writing are imperfect, they have played a vital role in the cultures which have developed them.