Related to This Book


A History of the Written Word

Matthew Battles (Author, Berkman Center for Internet and Society)

Overview | Formats

A profound, eloquent meditation on the history of writing, from Mesopotamia to multimedia.

Why does writing exist? What does it mean to those who write? Born from the interplay of natural and cultural history, the seemingly magical act of writing has continually expanded our consciousness. Portrayed in mythology as either a gift from heroes or a curse from the gods, it has been used as both an instrument of power and a channel of the divine; a means of social bonding and of individual self-definition. Now, as the revolution once wrought by the printed word gives way to the digital age, many fear that the art of writing, and the nuanced thinking nurtured by writing, are under threat. But writing itself, despite striving for permanence, is always in the midst of growth and transfiguration.

Celebrating the impulse to record, invent, and make one's mark, Matthew Battles reenchants the written word for all those susceptible to the power and beauty of writing in all of its forms.

Book Details

  • Paperback
  • July 2016
  • ISBN 978-0-393-35292-4
  • 5.5 × 8.3 in / 272 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Other Formats

  1. Book CoverPalimpsest: A History of the Written Word


Endorsements & Reviews

“This fascinating exploration of the evolution of writing shows how, despite radical technological changes, the practice maintains its atavistic mystery…. And the history of the written word, as this book makes clear, reveals the evolution of the human mind.” — W. Ralph Eubanks, Wall Street Journal

“[L]yrical…. [C]onsistently evocative…. In today's memoir-mad, self-published climate…“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.” — Michael Washburn, Boston Globe

“[E]xhilarating…. Battles is a gifted stylist, and his history of writing is both a paean to the powers of language and an extended demonstration of his own prowess. Nearly every page features an example of beautiful writing about writing.” — Nick Romeo, Christian Science Monitor

“An illuminating look at the origins and impact of writing . . . richly detailed. . . . Battles deftly excavates layers of human history from a wide range of sources. . . . A fascinating exploration stylishly and gracefully told.” — Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

“Incredibly ambitious . . . intriguing . . . thoroughly researched and thought provoking.” — Library Journal

“Dazzling.” — Publishers Weekly, Starred review

“Anyone who can write a history of writing in fewer than 200 pages is either foolish or brilliant. Matthew Battles is brilliant. This is not an encyclopedic chronology but an extended essay that skips gracefully across the centuries, stopping wherever the most interesting stories lie.” — Anne Fadiman, author of Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

“From traces in clay to photon traces on the screens that surround us today, seeing roots and bones in the shapes of letters, Matthew Battles explores the deep origins and hidden structures of our written world. Scholarly and poetic, Palimpsest is a beautiful and engaging read for anyone who loves to write.” — Ethan Zuckerman, author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection

“To call this book a profound meditation on what it means to be human would be to tell the truth but leave out all the fun. At once elegant and mischievous, Palimpsest is a great intellectual adventure that travels around the world on its way from the emergence of cuneiform to the future of cyberspace. It will charm and provoke any reader who has ever put pen to paper or typed into a text box, whether to attempt literature or scrawl today’s to-do list.” — Elise Blackwell, author of Hunger and The Lower Quarter

“Traveling through centuries and across continents, Battles finds unexpected connections and echoes that resonate with our own day. Surely this is what life in Borges’s endless library must be.” — Martin Puchner, professor of drama and of English and comparative literature, Harvard University

“The written word changed literally everything, allowing for history, the law, and civilization itself. But rarely is it appreciated for its own sake and its own beauty. Matthew Battles has written an essential text on the essence of writing. Whether it turns out to be an ode or an elegy, we have yet to see.” — Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now

Also by Matthew Battles All

  1. Book CoverLibrary: An Unquiet History


All Subjects