Writers have always had it tough.
According to a recent blog by Michael Hyatt, Google research indicates that 130 million books have been published in world history. Presumably, we are counting cuneiform tablets, papyrus, printing presses and now e-books. The numbers are staggering, and they are only increasing.
So you have competition. But we have today, I think, advantages as writers that our ancestors did not.
On a trip to Israel last week, my son and I visited a couple sites that are touchstones in history for writers.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, are quite a site to behold. Ancient characters on scrolls that seem too brittle even to look at. Then the location of the find – Qumran – is quite striking, too. Here, a particular Jewish sect devoted whole lives to the copying of sacred texts. Although the climate there is now harsh (I thought much of it looks like a moonscape), I suspect it wasn’t quite as harsh 2,000 years ago. At least there was probably more vegetation than exists now, but the point is, it was a challenging environment in which to write and transcribe.
This region, the Middle East, is thought to be the cradle of civilization, and the development of writing is a fascinating field of study.
At Ir David (“The City of David”) archaeological park just inside Jerusalem’s Old City, you can tour an entire exhibit on the development of writing. And if you could read Hebrew and other ancient Near East texts, you would see that they wrote and read from right to left, not the reverse, which we employ today.
From a placard at the exhibit: “Writing from right to left is known as ‘natural,’ since it is natural for the right hand to start on the right hand side and to move to the left. Writing from left to right is known as ‘logical,’ since this is the way the writer reveals the words as they are written.”
As Europe developed, and writers used bark and then parchment, we developed writing styles that move from left to right.
Another museum placard reads thus: “In the first stages of the development of various scripts, letters were written in columns and rows, from right to left or from left to right, and even in both directions [a style of writing known as Boustrophedon, which in Greek means ‘ox walk’]. The position of the letters was also not fixed. Later on, both the letters and the direction of writing stabilized and became defined.”
It is in the realm of mechanics that we have an advantage over the ancients, I believe.
Although cuneiform texts survive, many did not, so we have only fragmentary sources with which to construct ancient history. I believe modern computers are better preservatives, whether housed on disks or backup drives, or whether they are sent into orbit. In short, I believe the modern, mechanical art of writing is more “comfortable,” and thus provides us writers with a more conducive environment for writing.
In general, most of us do not spend much of our days foraging for food or dodging outlaws or wild beasts, so we should quit complaining that we don’t have enough time to write, or this or that is a distraction. For a fairly modest sum, most of us can obtain a computer, and the keyboard itself is already much easier to use, in my opinion, than even the manual typewriters I first used 30-odd years ago.
Yet writers of all eras and ages share certain things, among them a human longing for meaning and to understand our world. Whether it is Solomon, or Job in the Bible, or a contemporary like the anonymous Sumerian scribe who wrote:
“What is good in one’s sight is evil for a god.
What is bad in one’s own mind is good for his god.
Who can understand the counsel of the gods in the midst of heaven?
The plan of a god is deep waters, who can comprehend it?
Where has befuddled mankind ever learned what a god’s conduct is?”
We understand that our common humanity unites us, at least in key ways. These ancient lamentations, recorded by earnest writers, are similar in nature to modern writing – whether, say, the non-fiction records of an Elie Weisel, or the soaring fiction of Abraham Verghese (“Cutting for Stone”).
Well, my brief and not exactly coherent little lesson in the development of writing hopefully spurs you on to pursue your passion. The progression of the mechanics of writing is largely behind us now, ground broken by thinking souls who invented the writing instruments so that those of us in the modern world can concentrate almost entirely on ideas and thoughts.
We owe a debt of gratitude to all writers who have come before.