cover image The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts

The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts

Silvia Ferrara, trans. from the Italian by Todd Portnowitz. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $29 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-60162-1

Ferrara (Cypro-Minoan Inscriptions), professor of Aegean civilization at the University of Bologna, takes an entertaining and complex look at how written language has evolved. As she notes, readers may have “a vague, Proustian memory... from your days in elementary or middle school, something about Mesopotamia and how cuneiform was the first and only time writing was invented, the source from which all other scripts descended.” In fact, she suggests, writing, which she calls the “greatest invention in the world,” without which “we would be only voice, suspended in a continual present,” was invented at least three other times, in China, Egypt, and Central America. Her sweeping survey covers quipu, a method of documentation using thousands of strings and knots used by the Incans to “govern an empire” for two centuries in the 15th and 16th centuries; inscriptions carved into the bottom parts of turtle shells in ancient China; and the invention of the tablet in Mesopotamia. Ferrara’s survey is intricate and detailed, bolstered by photos and drawings of the various writing forms. The result is an intellectual feast that will enthrall admirers of Nicholas Basbanes’s On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History. (Mar.)