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Reference / Book: The Story of Writing

Theresa Jobateh

2007-Aug-19 12:52

The Story of Writing by Donald Jackson
Published by Taplinger Publishing Company and The Parker Pen Company (coincidence?)

(Discovered at the OPL. The cover caught my eye while I was walking by the shelves)

This book covers thousands of years' history and progression of the forming of letters of the alphabet, words and sentences - and the methods used to mechanically create them. It also describes the many methods used to recreate and illuminate text. It provides the reader with basic instructions to create paper, a quill pen and fountain pen of sorts. If they don't already have a copy of this book, calligraphy students would find it a very good reference. Those wishing to improve penmanship will find it of little benefit. I remember as a child, playing with my father's fountain pens. I also remember having to attend a special class on penmanship due to the complaints of my middle school science teacher. I would like to think I've improved somewhat since.

My favorite chapters in this book were those covering the mechanics and art of writing in the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. I enjoyed learning more about the scribes, the monks who would spend days and months recreating passages of the bible by hand, adding their own illustrations and illuminations. Some succumbed to pride and became boastful like Eadwine who called himself "the prince of scribes".

It was also interesting to hear once again about the mistakes that would be made in the copying process, how the scribes would sometimes poke fun at them with characters drawn in the page margins - or ignore them altogether thus opening up to error with the next copy. If any of you remember the novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz", you will recall the painstaking efforts of the futuristic monks in copying over and over again the text recovered from an ancient piece of paper - which turned out to be the grocery list of an employee at a missile silo.

When I consider my present-day role as humble scribe and taker of meeting minutes, I wonder how tedious and stressful it must have been for those who had to record the words of kings and pharaohs. In the act of transcribing, Egyptian copyists had to be careful. "The maxims of Ptahhotep which date from the Old Kingdom period were specific on this subject: 'Do not leave out a word, do not add one, put none in the place of the other.' ".

The author provides a history of not only the writing instruments but also the writing surfaces - from cave walls, stone, clay, papyrus, parchment (eeuww) to paper. As for the instruments, he lists the chisel, stick, reed brush and the evolution of the pen. He covers the evolution of the pen and how it enabled for more efficient transfer of thoughts to paper. There was even a phase where the public seemed more interested in personality and decoration of the fountain pen itself rather than the improvement of the mechanics of writing.

It is ironic or comforting to know that the combination of liquid ink, pen and paper "... first brought about by the Egyptians was such a revolutionary step that it is still the fundamental basis of most handwritten communication today; and the modern fiber-tip drawing pen is little more than a machine-produced version of the reed brush.".

This book was published in 1981. In my on-line searches, I could not locate a follow-up that would cover the advent of the personal computer and the ability to transcribe, to type and communicate with much greater speed. Of course, with greater speed there would be the risk of lesser quality. On that note, I think I should end this entry!


Geoff Gigg

2007-Aug-19 17:46

"A Canticle for Leibowitz" - a good book, thought-provoking. Read it a couple of years ago, though it came out in the 60's I think.

My penmanship was also marked bad in school. And it has deteriorated since then because I no longer have to make an effort for anyone but myself to read it. Sometimes my effort isn't even up to that.

Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for the summary and thoughts.
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