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The Golden Thread

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In his account of written communication over the past 5,000 years, he tries to answer questions like; At what point did handwriting begin to express individual personality? When did authors gain a legal right to their own text? When did the goose quill become obsolete as a writing instrument? And so on. Ewan Clayton, the calligrapher, former monk, erstwhile consultant to Xerox and professor in design at the University of Sunderland, recalling a more bruising experience, when he burst into tears as a six-year-old, having been told that he was writing his letter "f" wrongly. Clayton's childhood fascination with lettering lead him to the Sussex workshop of Joseph Cribb, the first apprentice of the sculptor and letter-cutter Eric Gill. Later he trained as a calligrapher, before putting his knowledge of scripts to work for Xerox. His experience of communicating via the written word thus spans the arc of writing technology, from stonecutting to manuscript to digital, and he brings his craftsman's perspective to his history of the Roman alphabet from its start to the present. The origins of the alphabet were not the inspiration of a lively minded Neolithic girl, but are to be found on a graffiti-covered cliff face near Wadi el-Hol in Upper Egypt. These ancient inscriptions represent the seeds from which alphabetic writing sprang, broadcast across the globe by merchants, armies and their bureaucrats and scribes, many of whom would have been slaves. Ancient attitudes to literacy, he observes, are at variance with those of modernity, where literacy is seen as power and freedom. In ancient Greece, the act of reading was seen as a kind of possession by the text; the loss of autonomy involved in allowing one's spirit to be inhabited by an unknown writer meant that reading was viewed with suspicion – an activity unsuitable for free citizens and grown men. Clayton's book is punctuated with such illuminating details. At every turn he brings his history alive by personifying it: the pleasure of writing on wax with a stylus is exemplified by the fine, flowing hand of a Roman scribe who made out the birth certificate of Herennia Gemella, born March 128 AD. The shift from scroll to book form is noted in a bit of advertising doggerel from 85-6 AD by the poet Martial, who remarks that his books, together with those of Virgil, Ovid, Cicero and Livy are now available in the new, hi-tech form of bound parchment leaves. Clayton's description of the rapture of early medieval monks as they engaged with the text of the Psalter draws on his own monastic experience of "words remembered because of the season they are chanted in, or because they are sung at the point in the year as the rising sun streams through a particular window of the church, or during the frost… or when the swallows are preparing to leave". From the simple representative shapes used to record transactions of goods and animals in ancient Egypt, to the sophisticated typographical resources available to the twenty-first-century computer user, the story of writing is the story of human civilization itself. Ewan Clayton marks each step in the historical development of writing, and explores the social and cultural impact of every stage: the invention of the alphabet; the replacement of the papyrus scroll with the codex in the late Roman period; the perfecting of printing using moveable type in the fifteenth century and the ensuing spread of literacy; the industrialization of printing during the Industrial Revolution; the impact of artistic Modernism on the written word in the early twentieth century - and of the digital switchover at the century's close. The Golden Thread raises issues of urgent interest for a society living in an era of unprecedented change to the tools and technologies of written communication. Chief amongst these is the fundamental question: 'What does it mean to be literate in the world of the early twenty-first century?' The Golden Thread belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who is inquisitive not just about the centrality of writing in the history of humanity, but also about its future. Ewan Clayton is Professor in Design at the University of Sunderland and co-director of the International Research Centre for Calligraphy. For a number of years he was a consultant for Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) where he worked within a research group that focused on documents and contemporary communications. He is an award-winning calligrapher and has exhibited and taught calligraphy in many parts of the world.

The Golden Thread

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Additional Information

Ewan Clayton
Publisher Penguin Books India
ISBN ISBN:9781848873629, 9781848873629
Size Demy 1/8
Pages 296