Imagine our world without writing. No pencils, no pens, no paper, no grocery lists. No chalkboards, typewriters or printing-presses, no letters or books. No computers or word-processors, no e-mail or Internet, no “social media”; and without binary code—strings of ones and zeroes that create computer programs—no viewable archives of film or television, either. Writing evolved to perform tasks that were difficult or impossible to accomplish without it; at some level, it is now essential for anything that human societies do, except in certain increasingly threatened cultures of hunter-gatherers. Without writing, modern civilization has amnesia; complex tasks need stable, reliable, long-term memory.
My new book, How Writing Made Us Human: 3000 BCE to Now, is about Homo scribens, Man the Writer, because whatever else they said about “man,” most writers in the Western tradition have assumed that writing made Homo fully human. Am I suggesting that writing is the only skill that makes “us” human? Of course not. Yet historically the idea was often implied and occasionally explicit. According to a late sixteenth-century treatise on penmanship, “Plato says that the difference which divides us humans from the animals is that we have the power of speech and they do not. I, however, say that the difference is that we know how to write but they do not.”
Throughout Western history, there have been other shorthand definitions of humanity in terms of some single, overarching, inherent trait. The most laudatory definition was devised by a botantist of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, who dubbed us Homo sapiens, Man the Wise; later we were promoted to Homo sapiens sapiens. This flattering label has stuck, peremptorily declaring our superiority to all the hominins that went extinct. By enshrining the epithet in anthropology and other sciences, we continue to imply that some definition of wisdom is entwined with our species’ evolution.
Whether Neanderthals or others of our relatives laughed or played is unprovable (precisely because they did not write). But it seems likely; archaeology tells us they made things, as hominins had done since Paleolithic times. Yet writing is the one accomplishment we do not share with Neanderthals and our other ancestors.
The history of writing is ready for its emotional close-up: what people have done with writing is now well known, but how they felt about it over time remains uncharted.
Every age had its own ideas of how writing came about, what it was for, and what human life would be without it. For thousands of years, Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Latins, Jews, Christians, and Muslims shared two projects, the creation and refinement of writing, and the attempt to understand its history and meaning. Other cultures, notably in China and Central America, have long traditions of writing, to be sure, and scholars have studied them for centuries. But to do them justice here would risk tangling the emotional thread that connects the history of Homo scribens from Babylon to our own time. That affective evolution is coherent and compelling, from myth to method, from fireside legends of gods and heroes to scientific excavation and decryption.
Throughout recorded history, humans have regarded the art of writing with awe and even reverence. To imagine humanity without writing was not impossible, but it was in many ways difficult. Prehistory, defined by the absence of written records, only entered the English language in 1836. A few years previously, in 1828, a North American schoolgirl praised writing as miraculous, “the wondrous, mystic art of painting speech, and speaking to the eyes.” This synesthetic quality, the capacity to translate information from one sense to another, had been a source of enthusiasm since the most ancient times, yet its appeal remained undiminished. Then, within twenty years, the electromagnetic telegraph expanded the definition of writing, by retranslating “painted speech” into a binary system of audible pulses capable of spanning continents and oceans.
Two centuries after the marveling schoolgirl, we can hardly imagine her degree of enthusiasm. Throughout five millennia, the art of writing has always been paradoxical, as mundane and practical as a pencil, yet miraculous, more stupefying in its way than end products like Paradise Lost, the Divine Comedy, the Iliad, or, ultimately, the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh.
As if echoing the nineteenth-century schoolgirl, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and from its beginnings writing seemed indeed magical, even god-given. Praise for letters as the foundation of civilized life developed in ancient societies as soon as records progressed beyond bare lists and inventories. On clay, papyrus and parchment, paper, stone, and metals, men—and a very few women until the Renaissance—marveled at the art of writing and celebrated its awesome magnification of memory and imagination.
For most of history, the epithet scribens would have been grossly inappropriate to describe the genus Homo; writing was a skill limited to a tiny elite of scribes and scholars. As the specialized technology of a guild, the art acquired a prestige, an aura, a mystique that made it seem magical, sometimes in the fullest sense of the word. Until nineteenth-century archaeology, anyone interested in the history of writing had scarcely better evidence than the Sumerians. Lacking historical perspective, but immensely proud of their craft, early scribes imagined its origin and development as superhuman, the gift of gods and heroes. Would-be historians inherited, transmitted, and embellished mythical tales about heroic or divine individuals who single-handedly invented an art imbued with a power that was sometimes tangible—that is, magical—as well as political, religious, or symbolic. Although these stories became steadily less mythical, their leitmotifs remained remarkably stable.
Writing as “The Wondrous, Mystic Art”
The conviction that writing was worthy of the highest admiration, a marvel so astonishing that only a god or godlike human could have invented it, permeated countless stories about it before 1800. Writing enabled memory to outlast the human voice and transcend the individual person; written thoughts could remain stable over generations or centuries. By bridging space as well as time, writing abolished isolation and created community. It could even enable interaction between the ephemeral human world and the invisible society of gods, demons, and spirits. Writing was so central to definitions of humanity that, as I note above, the concept of prehistory only emerged around 1800, while the notion that Adam, Moses, or another biblical patriarch had invented writing lingered among the religious.
Inscription and Erasure
Writing was a facsimile of immortality for individuals and whole societies; thus, a medieval Latin translator of Plato referred to memoria literarum. The phrase suggested that writing is a kind of receptacle, which contains memory as if it were a tangible physical object. Still, it was no secret that literary memory is not “literally” eternal because even the most durable media are overshadowed by the threat of erasure. The tension between inscription and obliteration (literally de-lettering) was and remains an omnipresent theme.
Lost Books and Libraries
Lost writings are a powerful leitmotif in the emotional history of writing. The erasure of a single work seems tragic even now, but in the long manuscript age before Gutenberg, the destruction of a book could symbolize the loss of the whole world. If nothing but fragments of a text survive, the biblioclasm inevitably stimulates writers to imagine the complete whole that was destroyed. Like the armless Venus de Milo, mutilated writings have inspired nostalgic dreams of reconstitution, ranging from scholarly treatises to fantasy and kitsch. The immense Library of Alexandria was already the archetype of mass erasure during antiquity and the Middle Ages, and it still excites both scholars and nonspecialists.
Not all lost writings are gone for good; some are merely misplaced, and startling rediscoveries have been made over the centuries. Famous recovered works that crowd scholarly daydreams include the dramatic example of an entire library belonging to Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian emperor who died in 627 BCE. Discovered in 1849–1852, it contained thousands of cuneiform tablets, many broken into tiny fragments. The trove included the epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest major work of world literature, containing what its first reader in two millennia christened “the original version of Noah’s Flood.” More recently, space-age technologies have permitted unprecedented collaboration between manuscript scholars and cutting-edge scientists, who miraculously salvaged lost texts by that archetypal mathematician Archimedes.
Many recoveries of lost works have been owed to random good fortune, but just as frequently they were the result of deliberate searches. The figure of the Bookhunter, an Indiana Jones who traces clues and braves danger to recover priceless written treasure, was already present in ancient Egyptian myth. During the Renaissance, scholarly bookhunters transformed the ancient fables into an exciting reality; as they rediscovered landmarks of Greek and Roman culture, they laid bare centuries of dramatic stories about the history and powers of writing. Even today, the search and recovery operation is still going strong, including in cultures far older than Greece and Rome.
Biblioclasms—lost libraries and damaged manuscripts—inspire a romantic nostalgia so intense that writers have often imagined whole utopias of extinct wisdom. Sometimes hard evidence of destruction inspired these bookish fantasies, but paradoxically, daydreams of loss were often provoked by exciting rediscoveries. Until the eighteenth century, sapientia veterum, the wisdom of the ancients, was the scholar’s imagined paradise, his (or increasingly her) Garden of Eden. Democratized literacy since 1800 has made reveries about the stupendous achievements of Egypt and Atlantis into perennial favorites of popular culture. Plato imagined Atlantis 2400 years ago, yet modern daydreams about lost utopias, from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to the 1985 film Back to the Future, differ from their ancient counterparts mainly through their anachronistic or pseudoscientific assumptions about technology and science.
Forgeries and Fakes
Forged texts were common in ancient Greece, and even earlier in Egypt. During the Renaissance, when genuine Greek and Roman texts and epigraphic inscriptions were being rediscovered in droves, forgery and falsification ran rife. Scholars developed techniques for detecting them, but forgers stayed a step ahead of their critics. Moreover, by the eighteenth century, novelists were employing narrative techniques—some of them dating back to ancient Greece—that blurred the boundaries between fact, forgery, and fiction in suggestive and often disturbing ways. In 1719, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, subtitled “the life and strange surprising adventures” of an Englishman from York, “written by Himself,” was told so realistically that a century later many readers, including a notorious forger of Shakespeare manuscripts, still mistook it for a factual account.
Books of the Damned
Not all enthusiasm is positive. Whether genuine or forged, physically real or only imagined, books have at times incarnated an ideal of evil. Early Christians destroyed numbers of books they considered theologically, morally, or intellectually dangerous, including the Book of Enoch, which claimed to be the memoirs of Noah’s great-grandfather. Other scandalous books were nonexistent or unlocatable to begin with: the mere title of a book could ignite passionate controversy, even—or especially—when no one could find copies of it. Beginning in the thirteenth century, scholars gossiped and daydreamed apprehensively about a Book of the Three Great Impostors, which supposedly argued that Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were charlatans and tricksters, and their religions nothing but tissues of lies. In the skeptical eighteenth century, a book was finally forged to fit the title, to widespread disappointment.
The opposite of damned books were sacred books, which were off limits (sacer in Latin) in a different way, “untouchable” because religious leaders declared them immune to all criticism. These holy books—or scriptures—are the most radically explicit example of creating authority—religious and political credibility—through writing. Their defenders claim that scriptures descend vertically from a god to humans, whereas modern scholars call them mere texts and explain their trajectories horizontally, across human history. From the Book of Enoch onward, legends about God and the Hebrew alphabet, including the origins of the Torah itself, were based on passages in the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament, the Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon, as well as numbers of would-be scriptures now forgotten, went further and described in “autobiographical” detail how they came to be written by gods or their human amanuenses.
As the previous two categories suggest, a letter, an inscription, or even an entire book can be wholly imaginary, as thoroughly nonexistent as cloud-cuckoo-land. Paradoxically, a brief title makes the hypothetical existence of a book easier to imagine than the narrated life of a Robinson Crusoe or an Elizabeth Bennet. Conversely, it is more difficult to establish the unreality of an imaginary book than that of a unicorn or a utopia. The metahistory of writing is entwined with the history of imaginary books, and examples of full-on mythical bibliography are far from rare. Whether as earnest scholarly quests for literary chimeras or as satirical send-ups of learned pretense, mythical bibliography remains a major expression of the social and emotional importance of writing.
Writing, Books, and Libraries as Metaphors and Symbols
Various myths about the history of writing are strongly symbolic or metaphorical. At the end of Dante’s Paradiso, his famous description of God as the ultimate book symbolized the overwhelming consequence of writing and books for Christian culture in 1320. Six centuries later, Jorge Luis Borges came to international fame through his tale “The Library of Babel” (1941). Borges describes the cosmos as an infinite library whose only inhabitants are despondent librarians searching vainly for the ultimate book that will make sense of their bibliocosm. Borges’s tales and essays frequently couch the deepest philosophical truths in enigmatic narratives, glorifying language, writing, and books as convincingly as genuine primitive myths ever did, sometimes naming uncanny or savage gods as their authors.
The history of writing is ready for its emotional close-up: what people have done with writing is now well known, but how they felt about it over time remains uncharted. The celebrities of bookish myths were not only gods and humans, but also writings, and ultimately the art of writing itself. Discarded documents, when they survive, have told us much about the way people used writing, in every kind of activity from accounting to religious contemplation, poetic meditation, philosophical inquiry, and scientific research. But discarded attitudes to writing still await the same kind of systematic spadework that archaeologists perform on material remains of the past.
The attitudes buried in myths and legends of writing reflect times when digging in the ground was for farmers, not archaeologists. Later, scholars researched the history of writing by reading books, but they had to construct that history for themselves from scattered, sometimes enigmatic anecdotes. Like the texts of Sappho’s poems or the Dead Sea Scrolls, emotional evidence about the history of writing survived in mutilated, fragmentary form. Nevertheless, that lore is as vital to the history of literature as Shakespeare’s sonnets or Dickens’s novels.
Generations of scholars have told us how a single author or a vaguely defined period (“the Middle Ages” or “the Enlightenment”) thought about books or libraries. But aside from writing as a profession (monk, scrivener, poet, historian, journalist, novelist, etc.), little has been collected of what earlier ages thought and felt about writing as an art, that is, as a whole phenomenon, in its organic relationship to humanity and civilization. Essential evidence for the emotional history of writing is only infrequently found in revered masterworks by Homer, Dante, or Jane Austen. The best sources are often lurking in outmoded scholarship: their technical obsolescence actually makes their defunct erudition more compelling as emotional history. Hiding under the dunes of dusty bygone scholarship are stories as captivating as Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”—a familiar poem inspired by an ancient, now-forgotten anecdote about writing.
Adapted from How Writing Made Us Human, 3000 BCE to Now by Walter Stephens. Copyright 2023. Published with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.