"Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World"
by John Man
Reading history and reviews
Finished in 2008How long have I had this book, and never read it until now? Probably since 2001. I remember starting it once and not getting past the introduction, after which it languished on my bookshelves surviving various reshuffles and clear-outs. I think that in the outside world it may even have gone out of print (rather ironically, given its subject).
Now that I've read it, I wish that I had picked it up again a bit sooner, because this is a fascinating book. As someone said to me when I told them about it, you don't very often think about the origins of the alphabet and yet it is quite an incredible invention. John Man traces the origins of our own Latin alphabet forwards through history from the Egyptians (it probably originated from a form of hieroglyphics) through the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Greeks and Etruscans, to the Romans. I found it a most enlightening journey, taking in various ancient civilisations and cultures - many of them now lost and only dimly remembered, which also makes it something of an archeological detective story.
Man's thesis is that new forms of writing - and thus new alphabets - tend to arise on the margins of empires, in cultures trying to establish themselves and their identity by taking existing scripts and modifying them for their own purposes. "Everyday" writing was also useful for record keeping by traders and administrators. On the way I learned more about history (never my strong point) alongside lots of interesting trivia (for example that the Phoencians name comes from the purple dye that they made from snails and which they traded across the Mediterranean - or that the Times New Roman font was based on the serif font that the Romans used in their monuments).
So, I'm sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading this book - but I'm glad I did in the end, and I'd recommend it to anyone else that they do the same.