Joined-up thinking

29 November 2013

Peter Anthony reflects on the implications of setting down letters


The Golden Thread: The story of writing`
Ewan Clayton
Atlantic Books £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT205 )

BEING made to think afresh about the humdrum things we do every day is always a revealing exercise. Ewan Clayton's Golden Thread is a fascinating exploration of the history and significance of the activity of writing in the West. He reveals it to be no mere humdrum activity, but rather a powerful nexus of cultural, intellectual, and artistic impulses that have shaped the world we live in, and which help to articulate our experience of it.

Clayton recounts the history of the creation, reading, storing, and dissemination of writing in the Latin alphabet from its earliest times until the modern day. His extensive survey prompts an intriguing range of insights and discoveries that challenge modernity's widely held misconceptions about writing as simply the dispassionate, utilitarian recording of information.

Many others have discussed the part played by literacy as a catalyst for political or social change, but Clayton is particularly persuasive when he points to the artistic power that different methods of writing have had. How we physically write, inscribe, or print, and the materials we use, can accompany what is written with a wide range of feelings and emphases in highly creative ways.

It is much more than just the setting down of words. Many of the greatest artistic achievements of the medieval age, for example, were in the form of fine penmanship and book illumination, whose power must not be underestimated. Clayton also shows how modern typefaces surprisingly owe a great deal to the Carolingian period, assumed by many to be a "dark" age. Complex changes in human understandings of beauty, perfection of form, and mathematical proportion can be traced in the development of different founts, styles, and writing environments.

Many of the ideas that Clayton explores come together in his final chapter, in which he wrestles with the fact that writing in the digital age of the internet no longer revolves around the physical inscribing of words, and yet is still consistently bound by a strong series of conventions, which we inherit from physical writing, concerning the recording and reading of words.

Clayton's abiding insight is that, in the many contexts in which we encounter the written word, even in the modern age, at no point can we forget that writing stems from a process that all of us experience, in origin, as the incising of strokes on a blank surface.

The particularity of this intimate, physical experience can never be completely expunged from the way in which we conceive of one of the most powerful tools that Western humanity has developed. Clayton successfully shows that embodying words in the Latin script through writing remains one of the most tenacious, subtle, and constantly underrated modes of artistic expression which we possess.

The Revd Peter Anthony is Priest-in-Charge of St Benet and All Saints, Kentish Town, London.

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