Writing: peek back in time

writers in history

Writers in history

The genesis: just writing

It seems writing began as a form of keeping records of assets owned or transferred to and received from others (barter/sale/lending). Thus, writing initially focused only on recording and conveying quantities to ensure rights of ownership: even in those ancient days, more than 9,000 years ago, man was greedy for possessions.

Presumably, this initial form of penmanship also included symbols, because it would have been necessary also to convey that the number 99 in a bill of sale or IOU stood for a consignment of camels, not concubines.

Writing as a representation of language

In time, written language evolved from describing numbers and objects to describing sounds—vowels and consonants that constituted commonly spoken oral language. In the meantime, of course, interpersonal communication had progressed from grunts (and aggressive body language like dragging somebody by the hair) to a more sophisticated, oral “Your cave or mine?” Vowels and consonants had started to take shape, and the bouquet replaced the bludgeon.

The earliest forms of writing—with vowels, consonants and syllables that formed words and sentences—have been traced back to the end of the fourth millennium BCE.

Along came the libraries

The earliest known libraries—organized efforts to save and maintain records, thus enabling retrieval as and when required—date back to the middle of the third millennium BCE. Initially, they were probably just archives with tablet records of rulers and their realms. After a while, the records began to tell tall tales of the rulers’ conquests and achievements. Until then, these tales had been told orally. Thus was born the profession of author. As was the impulse to destroy any authors and any of their works that had threat value.

Soon, libraries began to fill up with storybooks. The first written tale ever traced is The Epic of Gilgamesh, about 3,000 years old. Gilgamesh was a creep who insisted on exercising his royal rights to ravish the virgins of his kingdom on their wedding nights. Later, he struck up a lifelong friendship with tantalizing homosexual nuances with another creep, Enkidu, who managed to wean Gilgamesh off virgins.

The persecution victims

Authors must have had a difficult time in the days of cuneiform and hieroglyphics, which presumably involved a great deal of physical effort. Just imagine an author carving out a tablet glorifying the queen and then finding that he has misspelled her name. It he was lucky, he would have had time to destroy the tablet and carve out a new, correct one. If he was not, he would probably have ended up being carved up by the crocodiles in the Nile.

Since those days, of course, languages have progressed considerably: scholars have identified nearly 7,000 languages worldwide. That should give you an idea of the human passion for writing, reading and talking, even if it is hard to include “listening” here.

Given that same human love for yarns, authors were bound to flourish. They did so in spite of all the setbacks they and their works faced. In the third century BC, during the reign of the Qin Dynasty, thousands of Chinese texts were burned and scholars slaughtered because the rulers wanted nothing to dilute the mindset they were trying to impose on the citizens. Why does that sound familiar?

Fast forward to the twentieth century, and there was the instance of the Nazis burning tens of thousands of books in May 1933. They didn’t want the human population to be polluted by the drivel penned by inferior races. Not satisfied with burning books, they soon set about trying to rid the world altogether of all inferior races, authors and everyone else.

The Vatican has an index of prohibited books, including all the works of heavyweights like Jean-Paul Sartre and some of the works of relative lightweights like Jonathan Swift. I am not quite sure why Sartre. I didn’t get past the first few pages when I tried to read him, way back when I was an enthusiastic but not very selective reader. Sartre tied up my dim brain in knots, and I gave up with the impression not too many people could possibly be reading and making sense of him, anyway. So why ban him?

Sour grapes, you say? You are probably right.

I have managed to read—and heaven forbid, enjoy—a couple of Jonathan Swift’s works, and since I have come across nothing objectionable, I have concluded that apart from being dumb, I also have latent anti-religion tendencies.

In truth, a great many literary gems have been lost to us over the centuries, and we are the poorer for that loss.

These were instances of literature that was birthed, lived for a while and then was massacred. What about literature killed in the womb, or right at birth?

The stillborn

I am talking “traditional” publishers, of course. How many great books have been lost to us because traditional publishers rejected them as not good enough? We will never know the true figure, because there is no database for rejections, unless the publishers are hiding those figures also. I would safely guess, though, that the figure runs into the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions. Few traditional publishers, if any, employed qualified literary experts to judge the quality of books. Just think of the number of potential bestsellers that were aborted because hard-pressed people—most of who were probably incapable of assessing kindergarten books on the basic alphabet—judged them unworthy. After reading the first page, one page in the middle and the last page.

On a smaller and less callous scale, we can talk about would-be authors whose careers never took off because of family and friends.

“You, write a book? Hee hee.” Well-intentioned words? Maybe. Lethal words? Oh, yes!

The big positive in the recent self-publishing phenomenon is this: you, the author, are now free of most of the old shackles. In practically every aspect of writing, publishing and marketing your books, you can chart your own plans and procedures. You can choose to go it entirely alone; alternatively, you can opt for just as much external support as you deem necessary. As far as the party poopers in your family and social circles are concerned, you need to make up your mind and stick to your decision. You can let people poop on your parade or you can close them out with diapers, corks, bungs, whatever is effective.

The crossroads

Where are we going with all this? I have a little hunch (notwithstanding present-day trends) that libraries are going to continue to shape the universe of literature and the lives of authors in a big way. (Disclosure: I am prejudiced; libraries have played a huge role in my life).

More in my next post. Before you get there, drop a comment if you have anything to add on the history of writing. It is endlessly fascinating for us writers.

Writing: peek back in time

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 5 min