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The Alphabetic Labyrinth: Letters in History and Imagination Hardcover – 1 Apr 1995

3.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd; 01 edition (1 April 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500016089
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500016084
  • Product Dimensions: 3.8 x 20.3 x 26.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,214,314 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Customer reviews

3.0 out of 5 stars
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Format: Paperback
The Alphabetic Labyrinth is a prime example of how *not* to research a book. Like the late E A Wallis Budge, Drucker has a habit of not double checking a source's facts; thus we're told that Ogham is a "Welsh" alphabet (it's an Irish cipher), that Runes and Ogham have never been found in the same area - never mind the same monument - (So what's the famous Killaloe Rune/Ogham Stone then; Irish mist?), and the "Roger Bacon Cipher" (better known as the Voynich Manuscript) was deciphered by Prof Leonell Strong (his 'decipherment' was discredited decades ago; The Voynich Manuscript remains undeciphered to this day).
Historical personalities suffer from factual errors too. There are too many to mention them all but a typical example is Drucker telling the reader that Charlemagne's "illiteracy" is a "well established fact"; whereas his contemporary biographer, Alcuin of York, did say that Charlemagne never mastered his letters, but he also said Charlemagne could "speak Latin and read Greek": Dyslexic maybe, but illiterate; an opinion at best and most certainly not a well established fact.
Drucker doesn't double check her sources so their mistakes become hers, and as a result everything she says must be taken with a large dose of scepticism. This is a pity, not only because of the book's first class typography and excellent illustrations, but also because of the sections on the more esoteric and occult uses of alphabets are very interesting indeed, and Drucker is a good writer who's enthusiasm is put across with clarity and wit. In spite of its failings it is a very good and entertaining read, and worth buying for that alone - but alas not to be trusted in its conclusions, facts, or used as an authoritive reference work.
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Format: Paperback
This is probably Drucker's most acessable book, as she she usually concentrates on very specialist areas. Here, everyone can enjoy what she has to say on the alphabet. She has a balance between informal and formal language, which enables you to judge the level of depth you are going into. It has large areas which are very easy to understand, and it is these which make the book. Anyone can join in and learn the basics. For the more obsessed reader, there's another level (which may seem a little overwhelming to those unfamilier with the topic). So there's something for everyone, all in the same book. If you find that you don't want to go on, you can leave it there, and it sits on its own, but the posibilirty for delving deeper is there. Chapters include: The Alphabet in Context, Origins & Historians, the Kabblah, the Alphabet in the 19th Century. It gives a full history, including full details on specific genres. Lots of illustrations/diagrams/photos, so you won't be sitting wandering what she is talking about.
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Format: Paperback
An anecdotal illustrated history of letterforms and of the more curious and esoteric ways in which they have been utilised and interpreted through the ages, this is an inviting book that shares much common ground with Eco's "In Search of the Perfect Language", but which succeeds in mapping out its own unique space. Alas: though the conception is good, the execution is not always so. The earlier chapters drag as history is recounted parrot-fashion, and it is with yawning relief that the reader emerges from Antiquity and the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Suddenly, Drucker hits her stride and, most particularly in the chapter on the Kabbalah, the text quite fizzes with infectious enthusiasm. Once again, Thames and Hudson are to be congratulated on a marvellously-illustrated, well-made book. If a reader can tolerate the more indigestible sections, or is in the market more for education than entertainment, this volume will fit the bill very well.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program) 4.3 out of 5 stars 12 reviews
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poetic, mystical, and literary associations of the alphabet 9 Dec. 2001
By S. Gustafson - Published on
Format: Paperback
This book on the history of the alphabet is focused on Western and Semitic scripts; it pays little heed to the alphabetic scripts of South Asia. This book seems more concerned with mystical and artistic elaborations of the alphabetic symbols than with its actual use as a writing system. It focuses on things like the Kabbalah, calligraphic styles, and the changes wrought on attitudes to the alphabet wrought by the invention of printing. Parts of it seem a history of concepts used by other scholars attempting to determine the history and origin of the alphabet, rather than a new contribution to the alphabet's history.
Those who wish a more sober account of the alphabet's history, and tracing the family tree of the various alphabetic scripts, will get more mileage out of David Diringer's -The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind-. The information presented in this book, however, is interesting, if only for the fanciful ideas various people have devised around the alphabet.
My copy seems to have a number of typographical errors and other mistakes in it. A long passage discusses the thought of "Marcos the Gnostic." From the context I am reasonably certain that Marcion, not "Marcos," was intended. The people of Mount Seir in the Bible are identified in the book with Kenites and Midianites; if my memory serves me, the inhabitants of Mount Seir were Edomites and Horites. These mistakes tend to make me less inclined to trust the many passages that present data that is entirely new to me.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars All encompassing story of the alphabet 13 July 1998
By Barbara Ginzburg( - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Johanna Drucker gives us a comprehensive history of the alphabet, or should I say alphabets. She tells us about everything from the history of type face, to groups using various alphabets to justify their existence as a nation. Drucker also examines the various ways individuals have interpreted the alphabet; as a divine gift from a higher being to a necessary creation of "civilized" governments. This book was a fantastic read, although some sections required more than one reading for complete comprehension. A very informative book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Drucker's THE ALPHABETIC LABYRINTH Aptly Named 10 Aug. 1997
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Reading--not to mention reviewing--a single

chapter of Johanna Drucker's The Alphabetic

Labyrinth: The Letters in History and

Imagination is enough to convince any reader

that Drucker's work is aptly named. For

instance, Chapter 5 focuses first on the

script of Medieval documents, then on the

decorated letters of the same period, and on

to runes, alchemical alphabets, and the "Ars

Combinatoria." This is no easy journey, and

the twists, turns, and switchbacks are enough

to stagger even the most fearless of

polymaths. It is indeed a labyrinth--but one

worth the effort. The illustrations

(albeit all in black and white and/or blue)

make this book worthy of attention. But

leafing through the book only to look at the

illustrations would be to miss Drucker's

point--the alphabet is a sinuous vine,

twisting its way around the entire history of

civilization, and it continues to wind its

way into human imagination in the present.

In Chapter 5 (or would "V" be more

appropriate?), Drucker begins by reminding us

that ". . . in the centuries following the

decline of the Roman Empire . . . [t]he

activity of writing shifted emphasis--from the

carving of monumental inscriptions,writing

of classical poetry, and recording of legal

and biblical texts--to the copying of

religious and classical texts within the

province of religious communities" (94).

This is an example of the subtle way in

which Drucker encourages her readers to

remember that "Imagination" is part of the

title of her book--upon reading those

words I was immediately reminded of Eco's

NAME OF THE ROSE, and I'm sure many of

Drucker's statements inspire such thoughts

in the minds of other readers. After

discussing several scripts (or "hands") of

the Middle Ages, Drucker then walks readers

through the different styles of letter

decoration as illustrated by several

beautiful examples of medieval documents.

Drucker then leads the reader into a brief

discussion of runes and ogham which began as

legitimate forms of writing but came to have

"magical properties" (116), as have other

forms of alphabet throughout history. Drucker

then briefly discusses missionary and

alchemical alphabets, missionary alphabets

having been developed to transcribe holy texts

into the languages spoken by peoples with whom

the missionary worked and alchemical alphabets

being ". . . a code to order elements in

alchemical operations and . . . to conceal

the knowledge of secret processes in an

unreadable and arcane form" (120).

Next, Drucker performs one of the many

switchbacks she negotiates in her text by

discussing ancient and celestial alphabets,

celestial alphabets being "derived from

observation of configurations of stars in the

heavens which can be `read' as a form of

sacred writing" (125). Her final discussion

in Chapter 5 is reserved for the 13th Century

Catalan Raymond Llull, whose work later

resulted in the "Ars Combinatoria," a

systematization of systems so that they

functioned as an abstract network of

knowledge and process" (127).

Drucker has an unfortunate habit of using

difficult terminology several times before

defining/explaining it for her less erudite

reader (for instance, the word uncial is

used several times before it is finally

defined on page 94); however, this

compendium of alphabet history--Eurocentric

though it is--exhibits awareness of the

alphabets of non-Western cultures and exhibits

the depth of Drucker's understanding of her

subject. She invites the reader to explore

arcane subject areas connected with alphabets

and, in many cases, provides the material for

wonderful flights of the imagination.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Missing the Point 30 July 2001
By Claudio Piccinini - Published on
Format: Paperback
A reader reviewed this book by Joanna Drucker as not being enough informative on the alphabet history in itself. It's unfair and not informate to review the book like this. Its manifesto is all in the evocative title: The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination. Joanna Drucker traced an history of the alphabet from the very beginning talking about the interesting and often left apart complex variety of meanings of the letterform, embodied by mystery, symbolic, alchemic, religious, esotheric and many other values, offering an unique showcase of the history of writing. Saying the book is unsatisfying equals to say you have not even read the title, which explains quite well its content!
4.0 out of 5 stars Review of Chapter II: Origins and Historians 7 Aug. 1997
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Johanna Drucker's _The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination_ is primarily concerned with chronicling man's search for symbolic meanings of the letters of the alphabet. Chapter II of her book, however, is more concerned with plotting a history of the development of alphabets, and, as such, this chapter is more grounded in archaeological and linguistic history than the chapters that follow. For those people who are interested in a view of the relationships between ancient alphabets and modern ones, this chapter is full of information and insights.

The path the author uses to unravel the history of the search for the origins of the alphabet in this chapter is devoid of the discussions of symbolism that are the focus of the book's subsequent chapters. The chapters that follow Chapter II are concerned with values and meanings that have been attributed to letters of the alphabet based upon their visual shape. It is in these subsequent chapters that the author examines both the philosophical and cosmological beliefs and the mystic or ritual powers that have been assigned to letters of the alphabet. While these discussions are the main purpose of this book, Drucker uses Chapter II to piece together the history of the alphabet from the evidence of archaeological excavations and the study of linguistics.

Drucker states at the beginning of this chapter that the origins of alphabets have been a source of dispute since at least Classical Greek times. To give evidence of the early disputes, the author cites both Herodotus' statement that the alphabet of the Greeks developed as a result of cross cultural borrowing from the Phoenicians and Plato's belief that the Phoenician letters could be traced to the Egyptian god Thoth. Thus the dispute falls between those who thought the alphabet a man made technology and those who thought that the alphabet was a gift from a divine source.

Drucker presents a view of the ancient world and the development of the written alphabet that moves us past our western belief that "all that was Greek was great" to an appreciation of the fact that the Greeks only modified an extant Semitic writing form, the Phoenician alphabet, in order to meet the phonemes of their spoken language. Drucker goes on to provide information that allows the reader to see that the Phoenician alphabet was itself a distillation of written forms from several cultures in the general Sinai region including Egypt and Sumeria. This chapter also explains that although the hieroglyphs of Egypt were pictograms, most of the pictograms did not represent words, as was once believed. Most hieroglyphs actually represent distinct sounds of ancient Egyptian speech, and thus, were phonemes. Nor were hieroglyphs the only form of Egyptian writing; the Egyptians had also developed cursive writing forms that existed alongside hieroglyphics and served different writing purposes.

Drucker sees the Phoenician alphabet as the most direct source of all the alphabets in use today and her final illustration in this chapter (p.48) is a chart that depicts her rendition of the linguistic development of alphabets. This chart gives visual scope to the spread and variety of the alphabets through history. The strongest evidence that Greek, and thus most western alphabets, owe their origins to the Semitic languages that eventually evolve into Phoenician is the fact that the names of Greek letters are actually the names of Semitic letters and have no meaning in Greek.

Drucker's path through history is not straight and she discusses the dead ends into which theory has led us as well as many theories that have been determined to be incorrect. In taking this approach, Drucker gives us an insight into both the creation of knowledge and the importance of our own personal lenses in that creation. Drucker ends her historical journey where she began in ancient history, but she uses the archaeological evidence from 19th and 20th century excavations and developments in linguistics to move past speculation on the origins of the alphabet to an archeologically and linguistically supported view of the complex development of alphabets.

Drucker's illustrations do much to support the text, but are often difficult to decipher due to their diminutive size; it is not that illustrations on a larger scale would have made Phoenician or Hebrew script any more decipherable to the lay reader, but it might have been easier to discern some of the points discussed in the text. I also feel that expanded captions would have made it easier to relate the illustrations to the text. Many of the illustrations are charts that scholars of the alphabet used in order to show their personal rationale of the relationships between different alphabets. While these charts are very interesting, those of us who are not experts in linguistics or alphabet history might have benefited from captions that give the reader a clue as to which of the charts represent relationships believed to be valid and which represent theories that have been proven incorrect.

While this book appears to be written for a scholarly audience and often requires the use of a dictionary for those of us not well versed in the subject, this chapter is worth the effort for anyone with even just a passing interest in the history of the development of the world's alphabets.
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