Write from the Start

Writing is eerie. Considered as a technique or technology, it seems almost magical: a teleportation of ideas and facts from one mind to another, via a few scribbled marks on a page. Many early thinkers were deeply unsettled by this power, worrying that writing would deform our thoughts, and society too. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates frets that writing will kill face-to-face debate and “induce forgetfulness” in learners’ souls: If you could store knowledge on a scroll, why bother committing anything to memory? The Roman philosopher Plotinus thought writing would expose you to uninformed attacks on your ideas. Rousseau figured it was another step away from our howling, noble, primal selves and toward arid pedantry—“substituting exactitude for expressiveness.” Jesus Christ had plenty to say, but, in a rather telling move, never wrote any of it down.

Yet there’s long been an equally passionate counterview of writing as the forge of modern humanity. Elizabeth Eisenstein and Walter Ong credited print culture with making our thought more linear and logical. Milton put writing at the core of freedom: “He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.” Today, this romantic view of writing is dominant, often morosely so. People mourn the demise of handwritten letters as expressions of genuine human effort and artistry, compared to the frictionless clicking of a “like” on Facebook or the transmission of texts bedecked with emoji of hand claps and poop.

Matthew Battles is enchanted by writing. But in Palimpsest, the picture that emerges is much messier than a simple pro-or-con view of the written word. As he delves into our five-thousand-year-long experiment with text, Battles shows how the ugly, uncomfortable uses of the printed word have been overlaid on the sublime ones—and vice versa—until they’ve become inseparable.

For example, we moderns typically associate writing with literature. But when text first emerged, in ancient China and Mesopotamia, its applications weren’t for art’s sake. Quite the contrary: It shored up the conduct of commerce and statecraft, via the mundane function of tallying just what was in the coffers of the state and the grandiose one of expressing the might of rulers. Early cuneiform tablets, Battles notes, “celebrate and tabulate the spoils of war—cities razed, enemies beheaded, concubines taken captive. From the first, scribes wrote at the king’s behest; they were often slaves themselves.” He quotes Claude Lévi-Strauss, who had a particularly dark view of the social role of writing and argued that its introduction had historically “favored the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment.” Few societies generate documentation in greater volume than autocracies.

Writing is often associated, in the West, anyway, with the rise of interiority and the individual—the view favored by Eisenstein and, more recently, the tech critic Nicholas Carr. It’s by sitting in solitude with our thoughts, pen in hand, that we develop our most profound ideas about society, ethics, and ourselves. Yet, as Battles points out, none of the pioneers of Western thought wrote that way. They mostly dictated their writing to slaves or amanuenses; they “wrote” while surrounded by a teeming staff, many of whom were charged with cleaning up and completing their prose.

Cicero’s secretaries would take his thoughts and improve their polish and flow. The apostle Paul so infrequently wielded his own pen that when he actually did, in 6 Galatians, he marveled at his inexpert script. (“Look how big the letters are, now that I am writing to you in my own hand.”) Caravaggio famously painted Saint Jerome writing at a desk in monastic solitude, accompanied only by a human skull. But the real scene was more like the offices of Mad Men—a buzzing hive of executives barking out orders to underlings. In one letter to Augustine, Jerome described a particularly frantic evening of dictation: “I extemporized as I spoke . . . my tongue outstripped my secretaries’ pens and my volubility baffled their shorthand tricks.”

It took us millennia to start using writing for purposes that were purely literary. This represented quite a victory. “Literature,” as the Canadian poet and translator Robert Bringhurst notes, “in the written sense represents the triumph of language over writing: The subversion of writing for purposes that have little or nothing to do with social and economic control.” Even so, Battles writes, the utilitarian forms of writing never go away, so we can never straightforwardly hail writing as a pure cultural good. It’s always Janus-faced, rather like the fragmentary manuscript of Euripides’s Hypsipyle. Someone transcribed the play on a piece of scroll, then someone else—possibly the same person?—flipped it over and used the blank side for an “accounting document.” And, in a lovely bit of irony, this document’s financial side was the salvation of its literary one: Centuries later, scholars were able to assemble the now-tattered fragment by piecing together the accounting work.

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, ca. 1618–20, oil on canvas, 39 1/8 × 52 3/8". Attributed to Valentin de Boulogne.

Battles delights in pointing out this persistent cunning of history in the annals of the written word. Take the high-tech nostrum, common in today’s Silicon Valley, that “disruption” is everywhere; industries that fail to evolve will quickly die, killed off by nimbler, hoodie-sporting innovators. Yet, as Palimpsest shows again and again, the culture of writing is more like a group of nested Russian dolls, with each new form incorporating its predecessors. Innovators, it turns out, always plunder the past.

Written literature may have killed off mnemonic oral performance, but only after subsuming it. The first major literary works were essentially transcribed copies of oral masterpieces, like The Iliad. Scribes wrote for centuries before Gutenberg, and he carefully learned from their examples; the first movable-type fonts were copies of lovely, preexisting hand-drawn ones. And printing did not, as is often said, immediately consign scribes and handwriting to the dustbin of history. “Far from putting the scribes and illuminators of the late Middle Ages out of work, the technology of the press offered these artisans a new medium and new markets for the labor,” Battles notes; some of the first popular books to roll off the press were handwriting manuals, while elaborately drop-capped Gutenbergian layouts required plenty of illuminators to fill them out. Similarly, today’s computer code may seem new, but it’s actually a crazy mash-up of textual traditions that go back centuries, whose grammar incorporates punctuation marks invented in the Renaissance—the curly bracket, the octothorpe. (And computers turn out to be the strictest grammarians ever: Forget to close a single bracket and your software will crash, or won’t run at all.)

Today, of course, software is central to how text gets written, published, and read. I wrote this story using Google Docs and Word; Bookforum will print it industrially and then put it online, probably using some variant of WordPress. Writing and publishing are now so simple that they have exploded in volume. I once spent a few days researching how much prose the world generates, and came up with an estimated global output of 3.4 trillion words a day, roughly equal to the entire contents of the Library of Congress.

This output tends to horrify professional writers, who worry that, among other things, it swamps the literary market with dross while also producing ever more folks willing to write for free. It frequently unnerves teachers, too, who fear that composing and reading so much short-form, casual prose leaves students unequipped for the rigors of longer-form thought. It hardly helps that social-media apps—the ones midwifing much of this outpouring—ping us with alerts all day long. They’re selling ads—interrupting people is a major part of the business model. When it comes to assessing the impact of the boom in online communication, I’m one of the most optimistic people I know, but even I am unsettled by this corporate assault on our attention spans.

Battles is more sanguine. As he points out, we’ve panicked before about being drowned in endless, lousy text. The presumed pinnacles of deep, sustained, thoughtful reading were the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—a golden age (or at least a burnished-silver one) before the advent of telephone, radio, TV, and Snapchat. But, as Battles reminds us, this putative heyday of the written word had its own flood of silly fripperies that were “generally despised and rejected by polite culture”:

The early modern reader of Swift’s time engaged in an encounter not only with the luminescent wits of the Dial and the Royal Society but with a murky multiplicity of shifting possibilities in print: bawdy broadside cartoons, apocalyptic tracts, and libidinous mock epics from France. It was this multiplicity that produced the deep page—presumably, along with the brain circuitry underlying it.

Perhaps, then, our online forums will turn out to be much like the piece of parchment on which Euripides’s Hypsipyle was written—corporate on one side, cultural and literate on the other, its two uses inseparable from each other.

Clive Thompson is a contributing writer at Wired and the New York Times Magazine, and the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press, 2013).