Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word

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Hardcover, US 1st edition.

Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word is a non-fiction book about the history of writing written by Matthew Battles and published on 2015-07-27. The book is a combination of an opinion piece cheerleading for the importance of writing, poetic mythology of writing, and some history about writing.

Personal

I read this book because I wanted to learn more about the history of writing.

Status

I do not own this book, but I listened to the audio book read by the author and finished it on 2020-09-17.

Review

Good

  • Battles comments on several historical figures who viewed writing as the downfall of society. It's always interesting to see how every new advancement, no matter how significant it may be, always has some naysayers.
  • At one point the author suggests that the many just-so stories about the origin of writing are probably due to the fact that writing wasn't invented in full form, but evolved over thousands of years with no real origin, so people made one up. That sounds like a pretty accurate description.
  • I appreciate the inclusion of the Documentary Hypothesis, but I wish he would have went into more detail about the evidence for it instead of people's opinions.

Bad

  • The author ruminates about the tale of Jesus and the adulterous woman, but never mentions that the story has been known to be fraudulent for many years. Likewise, he goes on about the epistles in the New Testament attributing them to Paul. Although he does suggest that the authorship of more than one are questioned by scholars, he doesn't explain that a large assortment of scholars view over half of them as potentially fraudulent, and a couple as definitely fraudulent.
  • At one point, the author pays lip service to Stephen Jay Gould's awful non-overlapping magisteria argument.
  • The author uses the phrase "latter-day" about a dozen times.
  • In the section on the writing of computer code, he uses an example of BASIC on the Commodore 64. That would have been fitting if the book was written about 35 years earlier.

Ugly

  • The book is light on science and history and heavy on romantic flowery poetry. It's more preaching than teaching with the focusing mostly on the mythology surrounding writing for most of the book and quoting from other writers. It's not until the final chapters that he begins to address historical facts. I guess that's fine if that's what you're looking for, but I was disappointed because the title suggests a much more scholarly look at the history of writing.
  • I found there to be too many assertions for my taste. For example, he quotes from the Book of Job, not in its original Biblical Hebrew, but in Latin, then says the original authors would have understood the passage in the same way as the Latin translation reflects. He offers no evidence for this, just mere assertion. Likewise, he presents his personal interpretation of the epistles of Paul as fact. At one point he even suggests that the growing abundance of printed work caused people to start dressing like printed letters, wearing inky black clothes, tops hats to resemble the ascenders of the lowercase letter b, and heeled boots to resemble the feet on serifed letters.

Media

Covers

Links

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