In The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing, calligraphy expert Clayton explores the history of writing in all its aspects, focusing on the evolution of the Roman alphabet and its impact on civilization.

How did your time as a monk affect the way you viewed the art and act of writing?

My few years living in a monastery helped me write some of the earlier parts of the book. I knew the context in which the books I was looking at were used. I understood the rhythmical patterns of life that they fell into. It also enabled me to understand how writing can be thought of as a spiritual activity. Living with silence also taught me to value words, to sense them as having a transformative power as one wrestles to express an experience.

The Golden Thread focuses on the Roman alphabet. Have you studied other alphabets?

I am interested in all the writing systems of the world, ancient and modern. The present I asked for from my parents when I passed my exams at 16 was an Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic grammar! But I had to limit things for this book, and the Roman alphabet was a manageable unit, even though at times I felt overwhelmed and wished I had chosen just a fraction of this history to write about.

What is your favorite aspect of writing?

Two things fascinate me. First, the act of writing itself. Making contact with another surface and then moving across it in a sequence of movements, it’s like a dance or a kind of free-running in a city of letterforms as you surmount the challenges that each new combination of shapes throws at you, and always you keep your flow going. The second thing is what happens to a document after it is written, the activity that surrounds it.

Did you encounter any major surprises during your research?

I had been raised in the British Arts and Crafts tradition and the history I was taught tended to skip straight from the Renaissance to William Morris. But it was in the 17th and 18th centuries that handwriting really came into its own—after the development of the printing press. Printing became geographically widespread very quickly but it only affected certain parts of literary culture. It never touched the letter, the list, the small volume book, the accounts and workings of large companies like the East India Company. The discoveries of the Enlightenment all took place initially in hand written documents and were communicated by international correspondence. Another surprise was the role of literate slaves in classical Greece and Rome; there were very different attitudes to reading and writing in the ancient world compared to our own. Theirs was an oratorical culture and only secondarily a written one. The West’s calligraphic tradition did not develop as an expressive medium at that time—as was happening in China—but it was the scholars, poets, and administrators who were themselves doing the writing.