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The Story of Writing

23 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0500281567
ISBN-10: 0500281564
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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

"Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history, perhaps the greatest invention, since it made history possible." Thus Robinson, literary editor of the (London) Times Higher Education Supplement, introduces his scholarly and fascinating study of alphabets, hieroglyphics and pictograms. He says he is not presenting the full history of writing, focusing instead on "an account of the scripts used in the major civilizations of the ancient world, of the major scripts we use today, and of the underlying principles that unite the two." But a great deal of the history is here, together with more than 350 splendidly helpful (and viewable) illustrations: cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan glyphs, Chinese and Japanese writing, and scripts based on alphabets.

Robinson is also interested in the current movement toward increased communication through logograms, or pictographic symbols. Could they be expanded into a universal writing system that would transcend language differences? Robinson thinks not, asserting that whereas logograms can be helpful, "full writing is based on speech." The book is a paperback edition of a hardback published in 1995.


Delightful to read...difficult to put down once started. -- Communication Arts

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Thames and Hudson (September 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500281564
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500281567
  • Product Dimensions: 10 x 7.6 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,752,188 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

64 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Richard Petersen on March 24, 2001
Format: Paperback
As other reviewers have indicated, this book is beautifully illustrated, and it presents a great overview of the world's earliest writing systems and our attempts to understand them. If that is your interest, I cannot recommend a better introductory book.
On the other hand, if you wish to understand the relationship of writing to language, you may be led astray by the author's neglect of linguistic fundamentals.
The introduction of pictograms and proto-writing is useful. It tells most of what is theorized about the evolution of early language-based writing systems. However, the discussion of rebuses and logographs simply distracts the reader by mixing apples and oranges, namely language-based writing systems versus symbols and puzzles.
The author states that "English, French or German could be written in almost any script," but this obscures the fact that these languages adapted their common root -- the Roman alphabet -- differently to better support each language's unique phonetic structure. Similarly, how (or why) did our English orthography became fixed to now-extinct pronunciations? This you will not learn. Modern English is simply "less phonetic" than Finnish.
Of course, European writing is less novel than Japanese, Hangul or Cherokee, so the bulk of the discussion of modern writing systems focuses on the exotics. Unfortunately this is the subject area where the author is most dependent on the opinions of biased experts. For example, he bases much of his analysis of Japanese writing on J. Marshall Unger's attack on Japan's long-defunct 5th Generation computing debacle.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Clayton D. Strand on February 6, 2000
Format: Paperback
If nothing else mattered, the lush photography of this book would bring it to the forefront of efforts to describe the history of written communications. Unfortunately, while it is extremely well written by an informed author, it has more in common with a text book than a real history. I cannot argue with most of the facts in the book, but I could argue with some of the conclusions. When authors, no matter how talented, no matter how well-informed, speak ex cathedra (my spelling here may well indicate the part of alphabetic writing which is decidedly not phonetic, in English, at least), especially when relentlessly advocating a particular point of view in a controversy, generally I am inclined to ignore them. A glance through the bibliography, though, shows that Robinson is quite willing to give a casual reader enough sources to spend many hours learning what is known of the history of scripts, and writing.
All in all, I would say this book is an excellent way to spark an interest in the subject.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Eds Word on May 31, 2003
Format: Paperback
A richly illustrated nontechnical introduction to the history of writing. The author briefly touches upon the relationship between language and script and the challenges involved in the classification of writing systems but the bulk of the book is on presenting different families of scripts and accounts of thier development. The sections on extinct writing, such as cuneiform, and on undeciphered scripts were interesting but the book's chief attribute are the illustrations of alphabets, inscriptions, and glyphs, many of which are interpreted for the reader. A similar volume for the more linguistically inclined is "A History of Writing" by Steven Robert Fischer. The author, himself not without contraversy, provides the technical precision that is lacking in Robinson's book and has lots of examples of scripts as well.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Avid Reader on December 6, 2003
Format: Paperback
I notice as I write these words that I am taking part in a rather recent venture - the passage and preservation of information through symbols. Naturally, these were originally pictures and over time these evolved into the various scripts we now call alphabets.
This is a good overview of the various worldwide systems used today and in the past. He explains that ALL scripts are a mixture of phonetic and semantic signs - it's only the degree that differs. There is a historical review of hieroglyphs and the origins of writing, then a discussion of the evolution of writing and finally a look at the present and the future where, surprisingly, semantic notation is making a comeback. The book is lavishly ilustrated with charts, photographs and maps.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Robin Scott (professional engineer, amateur ancient historian) on May 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
My major reading interest these days concerns ancient history (co-incidentally) recorded in writing at the time. This era starts then with Sumeria and leads chronologically, but not directly, from there. Sumeria, Babylon, Egypt, Mayas, Incas, Indus, and so on are all included. Excluded, to some extent (because they're better known) are Greece and Rome.
I have read books by David Rohl, Graham Hancock, Zecharia Sitchin, Robert Bauval, Michael Coe, Philip Graham, Alan Alford, D.S.Allan, Christopher Dunn, Mark Lehner, Von Daniken, Adrian Gilbert. Some of these my be considered by "fringe" authors (don't forget Velikovsky!), Others are very definitely "establishment". I do not (necessarily ) agree with their conclusions and extract only their facts!
But ... "The Story of Writing", WOW, what a book! It ties in so absolutely perfectly with where my interests lie! I thought that it would but be a child's story of writing (it was bought sight unseen). Far from it. It is an excellent thorough primer for a serious student. The book leads in with an extensive examination of what writing must do; i.e. transfer spoken word and ideas to another person. The writing is but the medium. The explanations throughout are clear and easily understood. Small translation exercises are sneaked in at odd places to keep the reader's involvement.
Developments of the different writing schemes are outlined (there is not space for much more!) Their interrelation, or lack thereof, is illustrated. Egyptian hieroglyphics are meticulously explained. The Japanese written language is analysed; how difficult it must be to have to know three levels of writing in order to fully understand!
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