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Blogging and the history of writing

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At some point in time, probably a very long time ago indeed, something quite extraordinary happened: someone (or a group of people) decided to transfer spoken language into symbols. We can only surmise what the implements were – a finger in the sand perhaps? Burnt embers on stone? – and what the purpose of their communication was. And how the moment unfolded can likewise only be left to supposition. Was it a brilliant flash of genius followed by much metaphorical popping of champagne corks? Or was it an unruffled affair of simple necessity owing to the natural vicissitudes of mankind? Whenever and however it happened, it marked one of the most significant shifts in the history of mankind – the move to written/visual communication.

Of course this visual communication could not be called writing in itself. Rather, historians refer to it as proto-writing, literally a proto-type. (For those interested, Andrew Robinson has written several books on writing and scripts.) Really, proto-writing was a form of drawing, which is why its individual elements are called pictograms. Technically speaking, therefore, if you could draw, you could (proto) write. Although the width of your readership probably left much to be desired.

Proto-writing developed into more complex pictograms. Most of the earliest examples of these were inscribed into clay tablets, and whose existence today, by the way, we owe to the fact that they were baked and hardened in the fires of incinerated communities. These emerged around 3300 BC, and interestingly their purpose seems to be predominantly mathematical – ancient Excel spreadsheets recording and balancing transactions.

The pictograms became ever more complex and therefore esoteric, Egyptian hieroglyphic script being an excellent example. Clay tablets gave way to papyrus and other forms of parchment. And so nations, it appeared, began writing their stories and histories, not just their financial transactions. Then alphabets appeared, the Phoenician in 1000 BC, the Greek in 730 BC, just in time for Homer’s poetry. Interestingly, though, Homer is believed to have lived closer to 850 BC, and therefore his poetry was transmitted only orally for at least a century, if not two (depending on which scholar you believe). If you could write back then, that was probably your job; you were a scribe. But as Homer’s example evinces, it wasn’t so much about readership as “listenership”.

The codification of alphabets (and therefore language) and the spread of “education” no doubt accelerated the art and practice of writing. Readership now relied on literacy and wealth. Your own manuscript would cost you an arm and a leg.

Then another monumental shift in the history of writing occurred, this time during the boom of the European Renaissance: the invention of “movable type”. In other words, the printing press. To say it revolutionized the way writing was produced and disseminated is practically an understatement. Suddenly books could be made en masse. Partner this with ever exploding trading routes and you could have your own copy of, say – Dante’s Divine Comedy (with illustrations), printed in Florence and over to you in London in a month or two. OK not quite as expeditious as Amazon’s standard free 3-5 business day shipping, but not a million miles away either, and not bad for the fifteenth century, you’d have to agree.

Next up was your very own printing press of sorts – the typewriter, invented in 1867. I have my own, a Smith-Corona Skyriter (salvaged from Value Village for the ransom of $30). It is an object of unparalleled mechanical beauty. And then of course, much like Bob Dylan’s music, writing went electric. From pictograms to telegrams. The 1980s saw the first ever electronic word processor, and the 1990s heralded the invention of the irrepressible and now ubiquitous monolith – the World Wide Web. Still, though, if you wanted anyone to read what you had written you pretty much had to get published.

Enter blogging stage left. Hardly a grande entrance. More of a discreet shuffle out from the wings. Even the word evoked suspicion. “Blog?” we all thought. It sounded too frumpy, too guttural. Somewhere between a blob and a log. Not the most alluring of literary enterprises. Like I said, we all thought. And now where are we? – hundreds of millions of blogs, and the vocation of scribe has become the vocation of blogger.

You know already the point I’m going to make about readership; it’s roll-your-eye-balls obvious, but nonetheless remarkable: write a blog piece and post it, and virtually anyone in the world with an internet connection (an estimated 2 billion+ people) can read what you’ve written. We’ve all got used to this idea, I know. But from the perspective of history’s timeline of writing the shift is jaw-dropping! There’s been a heretofore unwitnessed explosion. We are living on the mushrooming cloud of a fusillade of new and accessible writing.

I’ll admit, I used to feel mild disdain towards bloggers – What because everything you  have to say is so desperately important? Well actually, in a way, yes it is. I’ve come to accept that what we have to say is important. What you have to share is valuable. Not everyone’s going to be interested (a lot of people won’t even care), and what you post is not always going to be brilliant or “right”. But when it comes from a place of truth within yourself – and interests and creativity are an inseparable part of that truth – then it matters. And that’s why it should be shared. And that, readers, is what blogging is all about.


Concerning the birth of this blog

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I have a subscription to the bi-monthly Poets and Writers, and in each edition a different writer will have a turn sharing his or her thoughts on the subject matter: ‘Why We Write’.  Invariably, it is this article which I go to first – and almost without exception the article I savor the most.  Why?  Because for all the negative ideas and feelings (often?) associated with writers and writing – arrogance, pretense, loathing, cynicism, indifference; for all the literary theory of philosophers, such as Saussure‘s arbitrariness of language and Levinas‘s impossibility of language; for all the frustration, boredom, and self-doubt writers experience; and for all the people (myself included) who gawp in bemusement at the sheer quantity of writing ‘out there’ in the world around us, then the article speaks to that question by returning almost unfailingly, it seems to me, to one reason, simultaneously simple and complex: our humanity.  In essence, then, this is the theme of my blog, or at least therein lies the source of its creation and its departure point.  We write and we read for no other clearer reason than because we are humans.