New Book | Inventing the Alphabet

Posted in books by Editor on April 9, 2023

From The University of Chicago Press (though not entirely clear from the blurb, Drucker’s book provides a historiography rather than a history of the alphabet—as stated in the introduction, excerpted below)

Johanna Drucker, Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2023), 384 pages, ISBN: ‎978-0226815817, $40.

Inventing the Alphabet provides the first account of two-and-a-half millennia of scholarship on the alphabet. Drawing on decades of research, Johanna Drucker dives into sometimes obscure and esoteric references, dispelling myths and identifying a pantheon of little-known scholars who contributed to our modern understandings of the alphabet, one of the most important inventions in human history. Beginning with Biblical tales and accounts from antiquity, Drucker traces the transmission of ancient Greek thinking about the alphabet’s origin and debates about how Moses learned to read. The book moves through the centuries, finishing with contemporary concepts of the letters in alpha-numeric code used for global communication systems. Along the way, we learn about magical and angelic alphabets, antique inscriptions on coins and artifacts, and the comparative tables of scripts that continue through the development of modern fields of archaeology and paleography. This is the first book to chronicle the story of the intellectual history through which the alphabet has been ‘invented’ as an object of scholarship.

Johanna Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies and a distinguished professor in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has been the recipient of Fulbright, Mellon, and Getty Fellowships and in 2019 was the inaugural Distinguished Senior Humanities Fellow at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. Her artist books are included in museums and libraries in North America and Europe, and her creative work was the subject of a traveling retrospective, Druckworks 1972–2012: 40 Years of Books and Projects. Her publications include Visualizing Interpretation, Iliazd: Meta-Biography of a Modernist, and The Digital Humanities Coursebook.

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From the introduction:

“. . . this study is not an addition to the number of authoritative books on alphabet history. . . Instead, this work is a contribution to the intellectual history of this topic. Who knew what when about the alphabet? And how did the way they knew it—through texts, images, inscriptions, or artifacts—affect their conception of the identity and origin of alphabetic writing? As a historiography, this account traces the ways knowledge and belief shaped the understanding of alphabetic writing.”


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