John Man's literary-linguistic history traces some of the roots of writing and of the alphabet, relating them to the shaping of the Western World. He refers to numerous scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphs, hieratic, and demotic; cuneiform variants; early Canaanite and Sinaitic; some Hebrew and Greek; Etruscan and Roman. He attempts to relate the development of the alphabet to the progress of Western civilisation in general. In the proof of his thesis he fails generally and in many specifics. He has not mastered the archaeological and literary sources available and would do well to return to basic resources such as: Gordon & Rendsburg's 'The Bible and the Ancient Near East'; Dever's 'What the Biblical Writers Knew, and When They Knew It'; Coogan's 'Stories from Ancient Canaan'; and Auerbach's 'Mimesis', mainly for the analysis of literary technique in Genesis vis-à-vis Homer. I am sure that with his undoubted multi-lingual talent he will be able to enjoy this classic of literary criticism (and central to his thesis) in its German original, unlike me.
He would also do well to read the Old Testament with recent commentaries at hand which give more than the old 'Documentary Hypothesis' deconstruction, which is irrelevant to his thesis, and intellectually rather like being trapped in the cave of the Cyclops and having to watch the brains of your companions being dashed out, and knowing that It's Your Turn Next unless you can poke out its eye and hitch a lift on a passing sheep. (Thankfully he is too good a classicist to fall into the cynical postmodern clutches of the Sheffield-Copenhagen harpies, evading the Scylla and Charybdis of theological turpitude and pettifogging politics.) The task of writing this history covers the epigraphy and orthography of many literatures, languages, and scripts, spans many cultures, four millennia, and is clearly too much for any one Man.
The style and quality of this 300-page text varies hugely and frustratingly. But there are some good things, where the author suddenly gets focus. These sections of some style and substance are:
1) John & Deborah Darnells' 1990's work on Proto-Sinaitic in the Wadi el-Hol, Egypt, pp.69-90.
2) Sass's work on Proto-Sinaitic in the Sinai turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem, pp.119-128.
3) Notes on the Exodus: between the Battle of Kadesh (c.1273BC), and a stela published 1972, of Pharaoh Sethnakht II (c.1180BC), about an anti-pharaoh faction bribing an Asiatic/Canaanite people to aid the revolt, pp.140-142.
4) Notes on Ugarit, pp.160-174. The excerpt of the 'Hymn to El' is apposite. The comparative exegesis of Ugaritic literature and Psalms/Canticles skids about freely, but not completely off piste.
5) Chapter 9, 'Why We Don't Write Etruscan', pp.237-263. (Write a full book like this, I would buy it.)
6) Bibliography and index.
The basic reasoning and expository prose is in places the very paradigm of how not to proceed. There is confusion about the target audience, which seems to be the scientific community, but the flow of science analogies soon dries up. Confused arithmetic concerning dates do not help his cause. (I am constrained to add that he notes the nugatory explanatory power of Dawkin's 'meme' in evolutionary psychology - and in psychology in general I fear - and then proceeds to lean heavily on this frail reed.) All in all, the self-contradictions, non sequiteurs, ambiguous analogies, mixed metaphors, and plain incoherence of certain sentences and paragraphs serve only to lure the tyro into the logical Slough of Despond.
The more gentle reader of this review may feel that I have been harsh in my judgement and consider that I should not whip a lame dog, even the most miscreant. But surely any red-blooded omnivore enjoys a good roast on occasion, and I feel I have been fair to the text, and feel the more justified as I write this at the season of turkey, crackers, and self-indulgence. Please, do what I did, read (even buy) the book, then let the world know what you think.
This report prepared by Michael JR Jose