Review by Choice Review
Joining Battles's Library: An Unquiet History (2003) and his The Library beyond the Book, cowritten with Jeffrey Schnapp (2014), this volume reflects the author's earlier experience as a librarian working at Harvard's Houghton Library. The word palimpsest strictly refers to the reuse of parchment by superimposing a new text on one that has been erased. Battles (fellow, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard) broadens that meaning to reflect how each form of writing stands on earlier inventions, just as the typewriter does. The author focuses on the act of writing, first developed in ancient times to record the spoils of war and laws. On the way to his discussion of today's computer technology, he explores cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, medieval scriptoria, and the development of movable type and how that invention interacted with manuscript production in Europe. Of particular interest are discussions of the uses of writing in the realms of law and power, religion, and literature. The audience for this study will be specialists in the history of the book. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students, researchers/faculty, professionals. --Georgia Brady Barnhill, American Antiquarian Society
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review
WHEN AN AUTHOR assigns himself the task of compiling "a history of the written word," a reader is likely to wonder: How well written is it? "Palimpsest" is a serious, well-researched book. Matthew Battles evokes the flexibility of human consciousness and the ability of the written word to absorb and deploy new technologies even though, as he explains, writing has always had its supposed shallows, from "penny dreadfuls" to propaganda and pornography. However, "Palimpsest" puts up a dull defense of its subject. It's elliptically organized and full of workmanlike, hackneyed prose. It's a history of the written word, but it's also a repository of literary missteps. It isn't clear just who Battles (the associate director of the Harvard-based research group metaLAB) intends as his audience. The book's jargon suggests that "Palimpsest" is directed at scholars, but its ideas are an exercise in the self-evident. "There is a favored metaphor for writing's tangled skein of overlapping figurations," Battles declares, alluding to the book's title. "The ink and faint imprint of the prior text underlies the new work, preserving a trace of something that had been rubbed out." But writing as palimpsest is a familiar notion. Although the reader keeps hoping Battles is up to more than playing out this image, that's pretty much all he does. Battles is so fond of Thomas De Quincey's definition that he quotes it at the very beginning and again at the very end: "What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain?" In between, he gives us an anodyne history of the written word: its origins in the cuneiform of Mesopotamia and the pictographs of China, the symbolic mechanics of writing, the codex and the printing press, writing as a tool of political and religious institutions, copyright, the telegraph, computer code. Which is fine as far as it goes, if unrevelatory. But Battles doesn't have any particular angle on his material other than an "ain't writing grand" affirmation: "This remarkable - and remarkably simple - capacity for writing to become a symbiont of the consciousness, for a craft so sophisticated and cognitively demanding to knit itself securely into our quotidian ways - is as responsible as its great utility for the ineluctable role it plays in modern life." "It's through our relationships that we make minds of people and pages, all of us together in the written word." This is writing as cheerleading. "Palimpsest" might have been effective as a long, rapturous essay, but it doesn't contain enough material to sustain a book, and perforce becomes a dumping ground, with long, potted exegeses of works by Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Ha Jin, not to mention an excruciating parable by Battles himself. Trend words like "originary" and "ineluctably" return, over and over, as do pet notions: "Yet as we've seen, the craft and technology of the press didn't so much erase the scribal arts as incorporate them." Line by line, Battles's writing is awash in bromide and cliché: "Writing is hard"; "Writing, in addition to being a means of recording and expressing, is also a medium of play"; "Words are the stuff we humans conjure with"; "Our world is woven from the weft our fibers weave"; "For all its topological salience and complexity, writing is linked to language." Battles praises the story of Gilgamesh for "speaking truth to power" and describes Virginia Woolf as "sallying forth" into intimate realms of consciousness. In Ishmael Reed's words, "Writin' is fightin'." Writing becomes galvanized when it's pushing against something, but Battles is never pushing against anything except himself, via dubious rhetorical questions ("It's fair to ask: What does writing want?"), false dichotomies ("Writing doesn't force or command; it teaches") and paper tigers ("We must first let go of the notion that human life before writing was either a static Eden or an endless war of all against all"). I wanted to like this book, since I care about writing not just as an activity but as a metaphor for human existence. Yet what I care most about is writing as writing. Although well intentioned, "Palimpsest" founders on its own writerly ineptitude. DAVID SHIELDS'S most recent book, written with Samantha Matthews, is "That Thing You Do With Your Mouth."
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 23, 2015]
Review by Choice Review
Review by New York Times Review