Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles, W.W. Norton & Company, 262 pages
Matthew Battles’ history of the written word takes its title from documents on which earlier text is effaced and overwritten by newer writing. Traces of the old linger beneath the new. The term can be a powerful symbol, evoking the complex layering of history, the evanescent, and the permanent — for example, an architectural palimpsest may have graffiti tagged on the walls of a museum that was once a warehouse. In the mid-19th century, Thomas De Quincey suggested the concept of the neurological palimpsest, in a quote that Battles uses as one instance of turning the history of writing into something, improbably, even bigger: “What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain?”
It is a bit of a stretch to apply the palimpsest analogy to Battles’ book, written in one era by one person. And palimpsesting (to borrow Battles’ verbiage) suggests intended erasure rather than preservation. Battles does just the opposite, deliberately — and deftly — illuminating the traces of written history that emerge in settings ancient and modern, commercial and literary, collective and individual. But in doing so, in looping back and forth across time and place, Battles does create a palimpsest of sorts, with layers upon layers, and much to parse.
Enmeshed in his exploration of computer-coding language (composed by “those latter-day scribes, the programmers”), for instance, are Morse code, Turing’s universal machine, 15th-century northern European manuscript arts, and Trajan’s Column of ancient Rome, among other examples. Battles writes that the “printed word — by which I mean writing made with movable type — is the first mass-produced material, made with the first industrially interchangeable parts.” To understand the current iteration of the printed word, then, which has as its underlying feature code that is “writing that begins to act as if it knows itself,” requires scrutiny of the Gutenberg press, everything that led up to it, and everything that followed. The subtitle clarifies that this is a history, and Battles does go back far beyond the earliest writing — a “recent invention” — to the earliest forms of reading, which “has its ancient antecedents in our meaning-pregnant engagement with the natural world”: “the exclamation of a flower in the forest’s green expanse; the broken phrase of tracks in the snow.” In the fourth millennium BCE, cuneiform emerged in Mesopotamia, rooted in farmers’ and herders’ accounting needs; Battles describes how oracle-bone scripts appeared in China at around the same time as cuneiform. But, he writes, “Where I’ve been trying here to describe the situation at the dawn of writing, I end up concluding that we’re always poised on writing’s cusp, always tipping into invention.”
That may be why Battles avoids the anticipated chronological trajectory of a history: Writing does not follow a standard path, so why apply to it a standard storyline? Writing evolves, and “evolution isn’t an event but a process, irreducible to names and places.” Much more can be gained from exploring writing’s repercussions than its key dates, and Battles’ scrutiny of writing’s relation to power, and the power it itself has, is perhaps his most compelling analysis. He asks, “Of which disposition is handwriting the handmaiden: Liberty, or Slavery? Progress, or Decadence?” Examples of both ends of the power spectrum abound: Early cuneiform scribes were often slaves made to glorify their kings, yet literacy, as Charles Dickens so marvelously depicted in Great Expectations, can be an exhilarating means of self-realization. Somewhere in the middle, medieval monks dutifully copied theological texts, but at times they added, with imagined gleeful mischief, their own singular flourishes (such as marginalia of dancing animals or grumpy complaints: “St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing”). The power element of writing —whether it spreads power or concentrates it — recalls the palimpsest image again, which Battles suggests “denotes devouring; a ‘character’ is a thing that is cut; ‘to write,’ too, derives from an ancient clan of Germanic words for scoring, slicing, and tearing.”
As the above quotations demonstrate, Battles’ language is, appropriately, vivid, intricate, and selfaware, at times riffing on or dipping into the fantastic in ways that keep things entertaining — a reminder that writing, while a craft and sometimes a chore, can be a form of pleasure. It must have been a joy to type out the description of the nineteenth century as the “Age of the Letter”: “In Europe and America, men even dressed like letters: their woolens dyed in inky tones, their top hats erect like ascenders of the letters b, d, and h, their coattails and boot heels turned like serifs.”
If we now live in the Age of the Computer Code (which is unlikely to provide sartorial inspiration), looking back at the layers of history that got us here is an engrossing way to challenge the “plastic fantastic that is the human brain.”