Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles

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If you expect this book to live up to its subtitle, you'll be disappointed. If you read it as a highly personal, occasionally beautiful introduction to the vast and ongoing changes that writing has wrought on human history, though, it serves the purpose. Battles takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of writing's history (Cave painters! Sumer! The Chinese alphabet! Gutenberg! Coding!) and ably summarizes the scholars who have best traced its impact.

Readers interested in this topic should use Battles’s book as a warmup lap and a guide to future reading. His sources—from Plato to Elizabeth Eisenstein to Virginia Woolf—are themselves enthralling reading.

About the Author

Phil Christman teaches English at the University of Michigan and attends St. Clare's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, Mich.