The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts by Sylvia Ferrara, translated by Todd Portnowitz
Sylvia Ferrara is an Italian scholar/researcher/professor who has devoted much of her life, both in solo work and (more importantly and effectively to her) in collaboration, to learning how writing developed/develops and to deciphering a number of scripts that have stubbornly resisted translation. In The Greatest Invention she offers the fruits of that research in often fascinating, sometimes dizzying, sometimes frustrating, always exuberant fashion.
The dizzying part comes partly from the way Ferrara flies all over the place in space and time, hitting regions such as China, Crete, Easter Island, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Central and South America, and the United States, among others, all of them at various stages of mostly ancient but sometimes recent history. The fascinating aspect come from how Ferrara focuses on a half-dozen or so in depth, but goes off on myriad of tangents and comparisons to bring in other times and places. Her own work, particularly her collaborative project with a European Union research group makes up the bulk of the book obviously (a sidetrack of the text is her argument that nearly all intellectual progress arises from collaboration rather than “individual genius” as the stories love to highlight), but Ferrara pulls in a lot of other sources, both professional scholars and dedicated amateurs. One of the more interesting is Alice Kober, a Brooklyn scholar who “smoked like a chimney and was known to file [her] notecards [on Linear B] in her empty Lucky Strike cartons.” Her breakthrough laid the foundation for architect and amateur linguist Michael Ventris to eventually decipher Linear B, though tragically Kober died just beforehand and so didn’t live to see it.
Examination of Linear B offers up a more lighthearted story in that both it and its antecedent Linear A (which remains undeciphered) use an image of a cat to denote the sound “ma” (think “meow”). The fascinating aspect is that “Across many of the world’s languages … the sound made by a cat is almost always represented the same way.” Readers may wonder what the big deal is, thinking “of course it is, cats go meow, dogs go woof, and roosters crow cock-a-doodle-do.” But that’s only in our own provincial bubble of assumptions. In reality, the universality of a cat’s noise is the exception and stands quite unlike nearly all other animals — roosters for instance, Ferrara tells us, do crow “cock-a-doodle do in English, but chicchirichi in Italian, while Russian dogs go “gav” and Indonesian ones go “guk” (neither of which sounds like a “woof”).
One of the many strengths of The Greatest Invention is how time and again Ferrara offers up a cautionary tale of how our assumptions and prejudices can get in the way of making the sort of breakthroughs Alice Kober did. The way the Mayan language took so long to be deciphered because people assumed they were mere icons rather than a script thanks to “Old World snobbism, looking down on the New World with the pitying, paternalistic gaze of one who’s seen it all, invented it all.” Or how the Incan quipu, a three-dimensional script using an amazing complexity of cords, was seen as merely a mnemonic device for remembering numbers. She also warns those of us of a certain age to let go of what was drilled into us in school — the way the Sumerians invented writing “first” and let it out into the world where it bloomed beyond its use in bureaucracy and was eventually picked up by other cultures.
Though The Greatest Invention is chock full of well sourced information, captivating tidbits, thoughtful insights and thought-provoking speculation, all told in a style brimming with brio and enthusiasm, a few issues do crop up. One is that “dizzying” aspect mentioned above, whereby Ferrara throws so much at you, from so many perspectives, ping-ponging back and forth between so many times and places, that it can be difficult to hold on to the last piece of information and slot it into the conceptual big-picture framework you’re trying to create and maintain. Another is that some readers may find some segments go too deep into the weeds of Linguistic analysis; mileage will certainly vary in the one. Finally, I found that on numerous occasions, Ferrara’s habit of throwing a number of metaphors, analogies, jokes, and digressions at the reader often hindered clarity rather than enhancing it. At the end, she says she wanted to write this as if she were speaking to the reader, and I’d say she often succeeded, to both good and less good result.
Those issues did make the reading at times frustrating, but the latter two were limited to scattered spots, while the first issue — the difficulty in remembering what you were just told and using it as a brick in the structure you’re building in your mind — is at least balanced by just how captivating the flood of information is and just how winning the voice is that’s presenting it to you. So occasionally frustrating, yes, but still an easy recommendation.