Review of Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles
Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word
by Matthew Battles
Oh boy, I should have checked out the Goodreads rating and reviews before buying this one. But I couldn’t resist! It was on sale at Chapters, and a whole book that seems to be about the history of writing? Sure, I flipped through the first few pages and detected a slightly pretentious tone—but I just thought it meant the author was very passionate and serious about their topic! I was seduced, I say! Seduced!
Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word is an investigation by Matthew Battles into the impetus and actuality of writing throughout human history. From painting on cave walls to computer code and text on glowing screens, Battles asks us to consider whether writing is what makes us human, whether humans inevitably—sorry, or I should say, as Battles loves to, ineluctably—had to write—and if so, why did we invent it when we did? Along the way, he connects writing to a number of social and cultural developments. However, he never really goes too deep into the subject. Indeed, his overall thesis is ultimately somewhat weak, while his writing and prose is cloyingly sesquipedalian. (In addition to the above-noted ineluctably, Battles’ second-favourite word is enjambment).
A small part of me feels mean for criticizing someone’s writing like this. After all, I do enjoy beautiful writing. I enjoy someone who knows what words they want to use and uses them, even if they are perhaps uncommon. I enjoy a good turn of phrase or image skilfully painted with the text.
And then we get passages like this one:
The nineteenth century was the Age of the Letter, the soot-colored ink of the press seeping like coal fire into every corner of public and private life. In Europe and America, men dressed like letters: their woolens dyed in inky tones, their top hats erect like the ascenders of the letters b, d, and h, their coattails and boot heels turned like serifs.
Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope.
There are two important and interesting points Battles manages to make in Palimpsest. First, that writing is linked to control and from there perhaps to slavery. Second, that writing inherently conflicts with the reliability of oral memory. Neither of these ideas are new to me, nor do I think Battles explores them particularly well. (Consider Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” for a meditation on the latter.) Battles discusses how this book took him over a decade to assemble, and I feel for him: this is a difficult, broad, chaotic topic to grapple with. Yet for all that effort, Battles really only grasps at the edges of what writing is or does for us.
Each of the chapters has its highlights. Battles dives deep into Chinese writing for a while. His chapter on holy texts (but mostly just the Bible) contained some things I already knew about the authorship of the various Bible books. However, he also points out that how the Bible mentions or doesn’t mention writing, particularly in Paul’s letters, can give us a lot of information about literacy and cultural ideas about writing at the time those books were written. This kind of archaeological sleuthing is highly appealing to me. Similarly, when Battles discusses the printing press, he avoids swooning over its revolutionary nature but instead points that it was part of a larger, ongoing development in writing, that people seized upon the printing press as one of many new technologies and ideas with which to spread their words across continents.
So you see, it isn’t actually his style that disappoints so much as how that style, combined with the futility of the book, disappoints me. I never returned to Palimpsest excited or eager for the next chapter of this quest; I slouched back towards it with a sense of dread. Why didn’t I give up? Well, I was learning some things. Battles has done his research, and he cites a lot of interesting ideas. It just never quite coheres into a full, rich, rewarding experience for the reader. I wish I could endorse this book and tell you about how I luxuriated in the richness of the prose for hours on end. Alas … reader, I ineluctably did not find my elation in the enjambments of word and idea reified by the ink-on-paper of this tome.