Thursday, October 05, 2023

Why writing still matters, too


For the cover of Why Writing Still Matters I wanted an image that conveyed some of the messages that are to be found in the book - and that's quite a big ask. This image of Tom Price's wonderful piece called Network, which is in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, was an obvious candidate. It might make you think of writing as it is becoming - writing with technology, which is consistent with the book's subtitle, 'Written Communication in Changing Times'. The fact that I'm in the picture as well is a bit of an in-joke. But in the end we went for the more abstract image which is credited to Nick Oakes but doesn't actually get any commentary. It's a photograph of initials and names carved into a tree trunk near the Alhambra in Spain. I like it because it references an everyday, but unofficial use of writing - using your name as if to say 'I was here, too' - here for as long as this writing surface remains. It will outlast the act of inscription, but anything further is uncertain. It is the trace of an action - a penknife gouging out the crusty bark of a tree. Someone leaves their mark, announces their existence, expresses their frustration, pledges their love or whatever. I like it because it can be read in different ways, and because it might provoke all sorts of different reactions. The specific detail of its origin and author(s) are unknown. The fact that it has been coloured with the primary colours that Miro was so fond of adds another dimension for me. That and the place in which the photograph was taken - I have fond memories of visiting the Alhambra. Visiting and queuing. Once we waited for 6 hours! It can be like that at the height of the tourist season. But, it's always worth it. The Alhambra and the Generalife are a potent reminder of Moorish rule in Europe and an important part of Spain's architectural heritage. A jewel in the crown of Andalusia. Of course, none of this is in the photograph, but it's what I bring to the photograph. And somehow when you put all that together you get more of a sense of what writing is, what writing does and then maybe, perhaps, why writing still matters.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Paper matters, too

In Why Writing Still Matters I spend some time tracing the invention and development of paper as a writing technology, but not with the detail and enthusiasm that Basbanes applies in On Paper. But I do note that after the French Revolution writing paper began to appear bearing the names of new government offices and departments. Sometimes this was lavishly produced from engravings of the motif Liberty, Egality and Fraternity. Pictorial writing paper subsequently began to make its appearance on the correspondence of traders and shopkeepers, signalling a sort of sophistication or professionalism. By the early 1800s good quality writing paper was beginning to become available in England. Headed paper with embossed and ornamental designs was often printed with decorative or coloured borders. Some of this high quality paper was watermarked and used for invitations, greetings and to promote social events. Although the written messages inscribed on them were important, the quality and decoration on the paper carried an additional message - distinctive, expensive, tasteful, carefully chosen. Paper and printing were important to the prolific French novelist Balzac. This is partly because of his professional background as a printer, and partly because he was a keen observer of the practices of the Parisian literary world of his time and the gradual diffusion of literacy which was shaping the social and political life of the time. His concerns add texture to Lost Illusions, even when they stretch the bounds of credulity. When David, the printer's son proposes to his sweetheart he accompanies this with a lengthy discourse on his new ideas about paper making. 'Paper, which is no less wonderful a product than printing, of which it is a basis, had long been in existence in China when it penetrated through the underground channels of Asia Minor' he declaims. And this is just the beginning! This proposal speech spans five pages. What it offers us in terms of a detailed history of papermaking far outweighs its potential in the arena of courtship.