I bought this book in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York after visiting their exhibition ‘Art of The First Cities’, seduced by its lavish illustrations (over 350, 50 in colour!). Buying books in that kind of situation is usually a mistake and when I first started reading ‘The Story of Writing’ I thought this had been one of those occasions, as almost the first line explains that ‘it does not trace the development of writing … ‘
However, that initial disappointment was quickly dispelled as I became engrossed by Robinson’s brief but clear introduction to writing systems and the following fascinating section on ‘Extinct Writing’, which is divided into chapters each dedicated to the script of a major, ancient civilisation (cuneiform, hieroglyphs, Cretan Linear B, Mayan glyphs etc.).
As those familiar with Robinson’s other books may expect, he focuses significant attention on the people responsible for the decipherment of the extinct languages he discusses. As one myself, I was particularly pleased to learn that it was an (eccentric) architect who paved the way to the understanding of Cretan Linear B.
The methods and history of the translation of ancient or lost languages, simply and effectively explained, were a revelation to me. The few puzzles Robinson has included add significantly to the experience, allowing the reader to feel as if they are participating in the unfolding decipherment. The illustrations are all very well chosen to match the text.
After the rush of excitement produced by the first two thirds of the book, I found the section on ‘Living Writing’ a slight disappointment. Robinson is at his best when enthusing about decipherment past, present and future. I eagerly await the release of the paperback edition of Robinson’s book ‘Lost Languages’ in the confident expectation that it will be wholly as fascinating and well written as the best chapters in ‘The Story of Writing’.