Matthew Battles’s “Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word” is an exploration of the “magisterium of writing,” which is his way of describing writing’s robust and inescapable “influence on human experience.” Rather than a dense, comprehensive history of writing and literacy, Battles, a program fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the author of “Library: An Unquiet History,” offers a meditation on the uses, abuses, and misunderstandings of writing across cultures and centuries, from early pictographic representations to contemporary computing.
For Battles, writing carries its own history. He compares it to a palimpsest, a “writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another.” Despite the erasure, some remnants of the text persist, forming a kind of archeological trail of the object’s use. It is, for Battles, the central metaphor not only for writing but for the evolution of the “clamor and caprice of culture” across human history. The cave painters of Lascaux and today’s computer coders — two ends of writing’s historical sweep — are linked not by form but intent, by the persistent human urge to play with and master the world.
The adoption of the codex — the early precursor to the books we read today, with facing pages — opens into a discussion about the development of modernity. The codex arrived alongside early Christians, replacing scrolls, and allowing for the combination, preservation, and interaction between texts that Battles claims led to an altogether different world, where “writing talks to writing through books and time.” “Palimpsest” also explores the development of mechanized printing; contrary to common knowledge, the arts of the printing press didn’t replace the scribal arts of the Middle Ages as much as they incorporated them.
“Palimpsest” is perhaps most surprising when it takes up modern computer coding. “The story of computing is often told as something that disrupts the magisterium of writing,” Battles writes, “an insurrection against the contemplative, ordered, reflective, human-centered, scholarly world of old.”
This, Battles contends, is incorrect. Computer language, forgive the metaphor, is just writing 2.0. Writing, like fire, is a kind of technology . If we view computing as a continuation of writing, Battles suggests, we can find a humanism in what at first appears cold and alien.
Almost as interesting is the book’s interrogation of the power of writing, how literacy can aid both freedom and slavery. As a method of subjugation, writing has been as important as the sword. Battles sources this claim in the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, whose experience among Amazonian tribes revealed writing has “favored the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment.” In the hands of the power hungry, writing becomes a way of dazzling the less literate.
Simultaneously, as Battles writes, “alongside writing’s career as an instrumentality of power, it has pursued a flickering existence as a modality of consciousness.” Writing makes and remakes the writer as much as it can subjugate a reader.
“Palimpsest” is lyrical and associative, not direct and expository. So although the book is consistently evocative, it is often frustrating. For instance, consider this passage on the origins of writing: “To a degree . . . writing is rooted in a mythological cosmos of archetypes and associations, homeopathy and homology, magic and mystery . . . To say that writing’s invention is the stuff of myth is not to say that it arises out of a superstitious morass, but that its emergence is in and of the world, a natural phenomenon like all that myth enfolds and explains, from storms to love and war. Words are the stuff we humans conjure with.” Such passages can obscure the mystery they seek to reveal.
That is, however, as much a matter of taste as it is a direct criticism of “Palimpsest.” Such poetic condensation is a function of Battles’s ambition, which is welcome. In today’s memoir-mad, self-published climate it often feels as if there are as many — if not more — writers than readers. For a lot of these folks, “typing” has taken the place of “writing.” Battles’s work runs counter to this cultural moment, participating in and expanding the art that’s the focus of his history.
Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word
By Matthew Battles
Norton, 272 pp., $26.95
Michael Washburn is director of programs at the New York Council for the Humanities. He can be reached at email@example.com.