Monday, May 30, 2011

Reading :: Handbook of Research on Writing

Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text
Edited by Charles Bazerman

This behemoth of a book (652pp. including index) covers several strands of research on writing under the headings of "history of writing," "writing in society," "writing in schooling," and "writing as text." It's a strong collection, well integrated and edited, with broad coverage. Given the strength of the collection as a whole, I had a hard time picking standout pieces, but here I focus on a couple of the chapters on writing history.

First, Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Michael Erard's "Origins and Forms of Writing" summarizes and extends Schmandt-Besserat's groundbreaking work on the origins of writing in Mesopotamia. Although the discussion of writing's Mesopotamian origins (circa 3200 BCE) are familiar to those who have read Schmandt-Besserat's books, the authors also point out that writing appears to have arisen independently in two other places: China (about 1250 BCE) and Mesoamerica (650 BCE). As the authors emphasize, writing is neither intuitive nor common: "the cognitive steps that led from logography to numerals and phonograms occurred only once in Mesopotamia" (pp.13-15), and similarly the alphabet was invented only once (p.15).

In contrast to the many changes in the lineage of Mesopotamian writing, Chinese writing "has an unbroken record of use in the last three millenia leading up to the modern time" (p.15). The earliest Chinese writing was engraved on "turtle shell and cow bone, used in divination practices" (p.16).

Mesoamerican writing is much harder to reconstruct since Europeans destroyed many codices and others, hidden from the Europeans, decomposed (p.17). But Mesoamericans developed "as many as 13 different writing systems" whose glyphs were written on stone stellae, ceramics, and bark paper books (codices) (p.17). "If writing in Mesoamerica is associated with economic functions, then in Mesoamerica writing is associated with calendrical calculations and the actions of kingly dynasties" (p.17).

Graham Smart's contribution, "Writing and the Social Formation of Economy," picks up on the thread of Mesopotamian writing, arguing that "Writing has, over the millenia, supported the development of increasingly complex and geographically far-reaching forms of economic activity. Throughout this history, newly invented texts and functions for writing have facilitated innovative economic practices. In turn, the use of particular kinds of texts in economic activity led to their early and widespread development, ahead of other forms of writing" (p.103). Smart points out that "new forms and functions for writing allowed for increased complexity in economic affairs," thus "enabling commerce to transcend the constraints of human memory, social trust, and geography" (p.104).

I've only scratched the surface of a thick book full of standout chapters. If you're interested in research on writing, by all means, pick up this volume.

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