"THE PROCESS whereby man learned to embody his language in writing is one of the great miracles in the history of civilization and lies at the heart of his success as a species."
This formal statement on the book jacket flap of The Story of Writing is in strong contrast to the informal opening of Donald Jackson's first chapter: "I can remember when I was a child, learning to write with a pencil, the thrill of satisfaction when I finally succeeded in making an egg-shaped O which actually joined up at the top without missing." Such a sense of wonder is infectious and will keep the reader captive, eager to learn more of these 26 symbols he takes for granted every day. Because little is known about the alphabet by the majority of people--apart from misinformation about "calligraphy" in the many thoroughly bad books and kits currently available--this attractive volume, well-researched, illustrated on every page-opening, and with 50 color plates, is both timely and welcome. It abounds with a wealth of anecdotal and intriguing detail.
To write a book spanning 6,000 years, which is both popular and scholarly, is quite a feat. Two major themes provide the "warp" and the "weft" of this broad canvas, so that the rich pattern of information is not only intelligible but exciting. The "warp" is of course the history of civilizations and the relevance of events, people, wars, availability of materials, habits, and everyday needs upon the evolution of writing. The "weft" theme, however, is unusual and very enlightening for the non-specialist: Jackson is an internationally-known calligraphic designer and his story is permeated with the practicing craftsman's point of view. Careful explanations are given as to why and how materials and tools affected letter shapes. In addition, although this is not a "how-to" manual, clear illustrated instructions are presented for the actual making of papyrus, reed and quill pens, and gilding with gesso and gold leaf.
The craftsman's approach yields a practical in-depth understanding of every new historical development. We see Roman inscriptions of capitals carved in stone, planned with brush, and cut with chisel; we see their interpretation for less formal uses with stylus on wax tablets and a new fluidity of line emerging from reed pen and ink upon papyrus. Then we see the increasing precision achieved when sharply square-cut reeds and quills are used upon well- prepared animal-skin parchment and vellum.
Jackson then continues his story into the ninth century with the perfecting of the Carolingian minuscule under the reform of writing by Charlemagne, representing "a standard of simplicity and beauty against which all other writing styles can be measured."
There follows a fascinating chapter on the production of medieval illuminated manuscript books and the lives and working methods of the scribal monks, and later of the secular scribes and illuminators commissioned by the stationers. This section includes a detailed illustrated guide to how to look at an illuminated manuscript in order to understand the techniques employed and the properties and handling of the pigments used.
The Renaissance spirit spread by means of the twin developments of papermaking and printing from moveable type, and these eventually closed the scriptorium, changing the life style of the highly-respected scribe into that of the writing-master armed with his copy books. At first these were mostly in the Italic style, printed from woodcut blocks, later in copperplate style printed from engraved copper plates. Later still, industrialization with its mass production of steel pen nibs and photo- lithographic printing processes lowered the scribe's status still further to that of hack scrivener, scraping a living in the fields of law and business. Lowering of respect and degeneration of taste and sentiment went hand in hand in the 19th century, and there were few voices crying in the esthetic wilderness.
Jackson's last chapter opens with some insight into the meaning and impact of the arts and crafts movement, demonstrating its leader William Morris' belief in calligraphy as a legitimate branch of the fine arts. This revived attitude was fostered by Edward Johnston in England and Rudolf Koch in Germany, making it possible for calligraphy to provide not only a fine basis for graphic design training, but also for it "to become an art form in its own right: the search for the marriage of words to form, as an expression of the self, a performance"--as it has always been in the Orient.
Jackson elaborates on this theme more specifically by describing how a calligraphic artist can express his response to a text by his choice of letter-form styles, regarding them as "the colors in an artist's palette." He imagines, for instance, a formal, ceremonial piece where "every letter would stand aloof, without joins to its neighbors," as though dressed in "collar and tie and with polished black shoes." By contrast, a lighthearted poem might "use the open-necked shirt and bare-foot informality of a cursive Italian script."
This is such a refreshing book, giving pleasure as well as instruction. Naturally it has its faults. For example, a list of 29 books and their authors in the acknowledgements is an insufficient substitute for a comprehensive bibliography, glossary, and specific references and footnotes. On the production side, many of the color reproductions could be sharper, and color values are far from true. But in general I think the literary style, the historical value, and the enlightening views on calligraphy as an art form make this an important book, and I hope it will achieve the popularity its subject matter deserves.