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Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles

Bibliophiles and historians will be thrilled by this enthusiastic, detailed account of writing throughout history.

palimpsest

Matthew Battles (Library: An Unquiet History) undertakes a mammoth topic with Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word. Rather than an exhaustive chronicle, however, he has composed an extended meditation, a roaming through the centuries. The result is a collection of narrative examinations of writing as a technology, as a means of wielding power, as artistry and as communication. As Battles quotes it, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a palimpsest as a “writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another.” His imagination is captured by this concept in fact and as metaphor, and Palimpsest is in part a drawn-out consideration of “mind as page” and “page as mind” (the titles of its opening and closing chapters).

Battles’s survey ranges from Mesopotamian cuneiform in the fourth century BCE to early printing, word processing and social media. He explores Thoreau’s views on Confucianism, the clay tablets of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the topology of Chinese hanzi and the fascination with writing in Great Expectations. He is intrigued by the politics of the printing press and various typefaces. Historians, writers, philosophers and anthropologists including Socrates, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound and Ralph Waldo Emerson provide context for the philosophical significance of writing. Battles points out that modern computer code is a type of writing as well, “a kind of text that can’t exist on its own. But what other kind of text has ever existed?”

Among other revelations, Palimpsest elucidates the original meaning of “pirated” literature: “not… the unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s work but the use of a printing press without proper license,” and Allen Ginsberg’s modern redefinition of “graffiti,” which originally referred in the Italian to words or ornaments carved in clay forms. How we learn to write changes as our cultural expectations of writing change; thus what Battles calls a “feedback loop” of change in writing technologies perpetuates. In other words, in an increasingly digital age, Battles argues that writing is in flux–as it has been since its beginnings.

Palimpsest returns more than once to an emphasis on writing as art, and Battles’s own writing style is often decorative. The meandering structure of this expansive essay on writing in history, as well as its formal and academic tone, may pose challenges for some readers. However, the reader and writing fan absorbed by writing’s miscellany will find much to love and sink into in Palimpsest.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the July 10, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 radicals.*

*For my personal reaction to his style, although the quality of writing and research are sure to please other readers.

2 Responses

  1. The title is one of my favorite words, which intrigued me immediately. Your review makes it sound like my type of book (pun intended!), and your comments about the writing style leave me curious. I’ll make a point of seeking this one out.

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