Palimpsest: A History of the Writ­ten Word by Matthew Bat­tles, W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, 262 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Grace La­batt

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.”

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