Cover Image: The Greatest Invention

The Greatest Invention

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

Sylvia Ferrara is an Italian scholar/researcher/professor who has devoted much of her life, both in solo work and (more importantly and effectively to her) in collaboration, to learning how writing developed/develops and to deciphering a number of scripts that have stubbornly resisted translation. In The Greatest Invention she offers the fruits of that research in often fascinating, sometimes dizzying, sometimes frustrating, always exuberant fashion.

The dizzying part comes partly from the way Ferrara flies all over the place in space and time, hitting regions such as China, Crete, Easter Island, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Central and South America, and the United States, among others, all of them at various stages of mostly ancient but sometimes recent history.  The fascinating aspect come from how Ferrara focuses on a half-dozen or so in depth, but goes off on myriad of tangents and comparisons to bring in other times and places. Her own work, particularly her collaborative project with a European Union research group makes up the bulk of the book obviously (a sidetrack of the text is her argument that nearly all intellectual progress arises from collaboration rather than “individual genius” as the stories love to highlight), but Ferrara pulls in a lot of other sources, both professional scholars and dedicated amateurs. One of the more interesting is Alice Kober, a Brooklyn scholar who “smoked like a chimney and was known to file [her] notecards [on Linear B] in her empty Lucky Strike cartons.” Her breakthrough laid the foundation for architect and amateur linguist Michael Ventris to eventually decipher Linear B, though tragically Kober died just beforehand and so didn’t live to see it.

Examination of Linear B offers up a more lighthearted story in that both it and its antecedent Linear A (which remains undeciphered) use an image of a cat to denote the sound “ma” (think “meow”).  The fascinating aspect is that “Across many of the world’s languages …  the sound made by a cat is almost always represented the same way.” Readers may wonder what the big deal is, thinking “of course it is, cats go meow, dogs go woof, and roosters crow cock-a-doodle-do.”  But that’s only in our own provincial bubble of assumptions. In reality, the universality of a cat’s noise is the exception and stands quite unlike nearly all other animals — roosters for instance, Ferrara tells us, do crow “cock-a-doodle do in English, but chicchirichi in Italian, while Russian dogs go “gav” and Indonesian ones go “guk” (neither of which sounds like a “woof”).

One of the many strengths of The Greatest Invention is how time and again Ferrara offers up a cautionary tale of how our assumptions and prejudices can get in the way of making the sort of breakthroughs Alice Kober did.  The way the Mayan language took so long to be deciphered because people assumed they were mere icons rather than a script thanks to “Old World snobbism, looking down on the New World with the pitying, paternalistic gaze of one who’s seen it all, invented it all.” Or how the Incan quipu, a three-dimensional script using an amazing complexity of cords, was seen as merely a mnemonic device for remembering numbers. She also warns those of us of a certain age to let go of what was drilled into us in school — the way the Sumerians invented writing “first” and let it out into the world where it bloomed beyond its use in bureaucracy and was eventually picked up by other cultures.

Though The Greatest Invention is chock full of well sourced information, captivating tidbits, thoughtful insights and thought-provoking speculation, all told in a style brimming with brio and enthusiasm, a few issues do crop up. One is that “dizzying” aspect mentioned above, whereby Ferrara throws so much at you, from so many perspectives, ping-ponging back and forth between so many times and places, that it can be difficult to hold on to the last piece of information and slot it into the conceptual big-picture framework you’re trying to create and maintain. Another is that some readers may find some segments go too deep into the weeds of Linguistic analysis; mileage will certainly vary in the one. Finally, I found that on numerous occasions, Ferrara’s habit of throwing a number of metaphors, analogies, jokes, and digressions at the reader often hindered clarity rather than enhancing it. At the end, she says she wanted to write this as if she were speaking to the reader, and I’d say she often succeeded, to both good and less good result.

Those issues did make the reading at times frustrating, but the latter two were limited to scattered spots, while the first issue — the difficulty in remembering what you were just told and using it as a brick in the structure you’re building in your mind — is at least balanced by just how captivating the flood of information is and just how winning the voice is that’s presenting it to you. So occasionally frustrating, yes, but still an easy recommendation.
Was this review helpful?
I expected to really enjoy reading "The Greatest Invention", as it's exactly the kind of non-fiction that I increasingly enjoy reading, but I ended up disappointed...

The introduction, were the author explains her love of writings, is a nice introduction to the topic, but then she soon lost me. It's a shame, because I love linguistics, and I really enjoyed some of the author's explanations (e.g. about the discovery of logograms, about how we can make sentences in English out of the sound of emojis, such as "2 bee oar knot 2 bee"!). 

But overall, I didn't really like the way it was written, it didn't transport me back in time - I even sometimes doubted what was written. 
I have a great interest in Easter Island but even that section didn't hold my attention for very long. 

I'm therefore going to slowly keep reading this book, bit by bit, and skipping some parts, but it's definitely not the eye-opening book about writing that I expected... It's not pedagogical enough, and is not really the kind of book one would read in a few days just for fun.
Was this review helpful?
A very interesting book that I, sadly, did not get as much time as I had hoped to read because of the initial approval date. What made that shortened experience a little more trying was a lack of organizational flow in the book at its core. Knowledgable, and interesting, but also a hobby piece more than a staple.
Was this review helpful?
I really went into this wanting to love it - and while I think the topic is incredibly interesting the overall tone and organization of the book were a bit lacking for me. It felt sporadic and jumpy and, while I do have some background in the subject, it at times felt like it was geared towards a certain level of academia as opposed to someone who picked it up for the fun of the subject, which took away from the enjoyment.
Was this review helpful?
I really wanted to like this book. From the synopsis, it sounded right up my alley and fascinating. Instead, it toes a weird line between being very general and very specialized. In the examples she gives, she will go into very basic discussions on the scripts she’s exploring but then drop very technical language on the reader. I’m not quite sure who the target audience for this book is but it’s not my cup of tea.
Was this review helpful?
A very long time ago, humans devised written language.  Not just once, but over and over again in vastly distant lands and different ways.  Ferrara studies the development of written language, and its sociological and historical importance.  Her key focus is on so-far undeciphered texts from places as far apart as Cyprus and Easter Island.

Ferrara clearly knows her stuff, but her writing style is a little off-putting for me.  It’s sometimes dense (my fault for my not-too-impressive knowledge of linguistics), sometimes hyperbolic, and often tangents all over the place without a clear organizing principle.  She says she tried to write in a conversational style, and she does, but a problem for me is that the book reads as if she gave a stream-of-consciousness lecture, had it typed up and that became the book.

It’s still interesting and worth reading, but for me it wasn’t as gripping a tale as Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, about the deciphering of the Cretan Linear B.  Of course, they take different approaches, but I would suggest the Fox book if you are more interested in a tale of code-cracking than linguistics.
Was this review helpful?
This was a fascinating book, going through a number of mysterious scripts. Ideally, at least for me, you shouldn't be able to tell that a book is a translation - the translator is just as much an artist as the author. In this book about language, it was interesting to imagine the original in Italian. I should've focused more on the content, but the meta of this book was too appealing. I took a class on undeciphered languages in the fall, and this is what it aspired to be. Fascinating, yet grounded. Academic, but accessible.
Was this review helpful?
Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. This endlessly fascinating book studies the origins, the myths and the mysteries of the history of writing. The author is a scholar in the field and her enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. She shows how writing started in places like Mesopotamia, Crete, China, Egypt and others. It’s extraordinary that there are some places that have a writing system for two thousand years only for it to die away. Even more interesting are the few writings that still haven’t been deciphered. A great exploration into something we use everyday but forever take for granted.
Was this review helpful?
This title was very intriguing for me- the greatest invention being writing? Let's dive in. Overall it was worth the read, but fell flat in several areas. 

What I liked:
- I enjoyed reading about the early civilizations of Mesoamerica, Egypt, and China, I teach these in my World History class and liked being able to dive deeper into the writing systems. Particularly interesting to hear about how they all invented their writing system independent of each other. 
-The author used a plethora of images- it was interesting to see the artifacts she was discussing throughly in the book. 
What I didn't:
-The author's writing style was very.. interesting. I gave a little grace because the book was not originally written in English. But the more I read, the more I was convinced that the author intended to write in less of an academic style and more of a literary/narrative style. It was really just distracting more than anything else. 
-I also struggled with the organization of this book. In the first chapters it seemed clear how the book would be laid out- the author was going to take us in depth to several different early civilizations and their "invention" of writing. But as she did she would jump around topically and make references that were not clearly laid out. Overall it was very disorganized.
Was this review helpful?
The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts by Silvia Ferrara and translated by Todd Portnowitz is a fun and informative romp through the history, but more so the importance, of writing. 

This is a hybrid of sorts in that it does get into some detail and some specific terminology (though they are explained in a straightforward manner) but is presented rather informally. Yes, it is meant for a popular readership but even aside from that the tone and flow is more like conversation (or a lecture as she states) rather than a tightly constructed argument. I found it engaging but some may prefer something closer to the typical popular science book. I didn't always catch the importance of what seemed like asides to me, but they did make me stop and think about how they might fit. While I did usually make the connection, I think the more valuable benefit was that I actually had to think about what I was reading from a perspective other than my initial one.

This is not a textbook so not every school of linguistic thought is going to be mentioned. Nor should they be if they don't contribute to Ferrara's overall purpose. If this were a book to teach us the details of every manuscript and language, maybe so. But this is as much an argument for the value of the written word as it is a basic history. If you want a plain history that shows how thought has developed over the years, there are a lot of textbooks for you. If you want to feel the exuberance of a scholar for her subject, accompanied by interesting analogies and scientific facts, this may appeal to you. Just know ahead of time that this is more like having someone tell you what they think, albeit an expert in the field, than reading an academic thesis.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
Was this review helpful?
An interesting exploration of the development of writing. This is nonfiction in translation and the writing is clear, if quite academic.
Was this review helpful?
I’m the first to rate and review this book. An objectively smart book I subjectively didn’t quite love. But for the purposes of this review, I shall strive for objectivity. 
     I love historical nonfiction books told through objects. I’ve read ones done through vehicles, guns (USA, of course), etc. At a glance, this book looked to be a perfect combination of that and linguistics, another interest of mine. And so, it’s difficult to say why exactly it didn’t quite work for me, but let’s try…
      First off, it’s important to mention it’s likely not to be the book’s fault and you certainly can’t fault the author. In fact, the writing here is good enough to qualify for literature…in fact, the author may have wanted to (or maybe ought to have) write a literary book instead of nonfiction. Either way, the writing’s very good, engaging, all that. But then, and perhaps because it’s so literary, it does its best to stay on topic, but constantly veers off in wildly discursive tangents. It’s almost like it’s a book about a book about linguistics and manuscripts. 
      I admit, for me the manuscripts were the major draw, secret and otherwise, decipherable or not, they absolutely fascinate me. And they are featured in the book, just not as prominently as I would have liked. But the book really is more about writing itself, writing, according to the author (and it’s difficult to argue) is our greatest invention. That’s the contention belabouredly asserted throughout the book. 
       Funny thing, it doesn’t feature anywhere near even the top ten of most polls on the subject, nowhere near the wheel, tv, internet, etc. But then again, we don’t live in the smartest of times and so it’s easy to overlook the granddaddy of them all – the written word. And yet, where would we be without it.
       The author gets it, she’s an expert, what she doesn’t know about linguistics may not be worth knowing, and her passion for her subject certainly comes across and yet somehow the book was strangely underwhelming while overwritten. It is, most likely, a personal author/reader chemistry thing and shouldn’t affect the enjoyment of others. 
        Overall, though it dragged at times, The Greatest Invention was still an enlightening and educational read, and one featuring an excellent amount of black and white photos and images to tell the additional thousands or words, and so worth the time. Thanks Netgalley.
Was this review helpful?