The Greatest Invention

Greatest Invention coverThe Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts
Silvia Ferrara
translated by Todd Portnowitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (March 1, 2022), 280 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $23.78

The author is an expert in the world of writing and scripts. In The Greatest Invention she talks about the history of writing. And “talk” is an appropriate word here, as her style is conversational.

She begins writing about Crete and tells us that ancient Crete produced four scripts: Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A, the Phaistos Disk, and Linear B. Scholars have deciphered only one of those: Linear B. On the island of Cyprus there are four tablets written in what scholars call Crypto-Minoan. That is also undeciphered. From here Ferrara goes to Easter Island, where she discusses the Mamari tablet, written in the undeciphered Rongorongo script. Ferrara received a grant to lead a research group focused on the invention of writing and to decipher these so-far undeciphered scripts.

Ferrara then goes on to discuss when and how writing arises. She writes that when a civilization reaches a population of ten thousand you will find writing. However, she emphasizes that civilizations have existed without writing systems, and that “writing systems have formed like pearls in oysters, with no warning, no territorial expansion, no clear purpose.” Many people believe that writing arises out of the needs of bureaucracy, as we see in the Linear B scripts of Mycenae and the cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia. That idea, she says “is just reckless drivel.” Ferrara dispels the notion that writing was invented only once. She cites multiple examples that show writing must have arisen entirely independently in different places.

Ferrara delves into means of communication that did not involve writing, for example, the Incan quipu, which she describes as “rows and rows of cords, all strung together like charms on a necklace, all covered in knots.” She says that these were used for record keeping, but perhaps also to tell stories.

The author spends a lot of space discussing the rebus: a combination of letters and images. It seems a lot of ancient scripts used them. No doubt you played with rebuses in elementary school. For example:

bee in a rebus


She also writes about emojis. She tells us they are here to stay. Heaven help us. (One of the disadvantages of reading this book in the Kindle edition on my iPad is that the rebus and emoji images were very hard to see.)

In the final quarter of the book the author ends her conversational tone and takes on a drier, more academic approach as she discusses how scholars study language. She admits that computers have been of great help in attempts to decipher those still undeciphered scripts. But she emphasizes that it is the human effort that is the best tool for studying language and she insists it is a multidisciplinary undertaking. She enumerates: “epigraphists, archaeologists, anthropologists, geomatics engineers, historians, cognitivists, semiologists, and computer scientists. And linguists.”

Ferrara originally wrote the book in Italian. Todd Portnowitz translated it into English. This is interesting because there is a lot of casual language, idiom, and word play throughout the book. I have to wonder whether the Italian version differed somewhat from this English edition and if this is a revised version specifically intended for an English-speaking audience. I suspect Ferrara must have been involved in the translation. Her English is no doubt good enough. Her biography at the end of the book states that she studied at University College London and at the University of Oxford. It says she researched archaeology and linguistics at Oxford, and that she has taught at University College London, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. That makes me wonder why she didn’t simply write the English version herself.

No matter. If you are interested in the history and science of script and writing, take a look at The Greatest Invention.

Lost & Found

Lost & Found coverLost & Found: A Memoir
by Kathryn Schulz
Random House (January 11, 2022), 241 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $19.08

Kathryn Schulz’s memoir Lost & Found came out to favorable notices. Justifiably so.

Schulz opens the book describing her reaction to learning of the death of her father and her own experience of being lost. She writes about her father who came to the United States as a youngster, fleeing the war in Europe. She recalls her father as she was growing up, and how he was a skilled storyteller. Schulz then describes how her father was constantly losing things: keys, wallet, whatever. That didn’t bother him much, but it kept his wife and his two daughters busy following up. Schulz tells us how literate her father was and how capable he was as a lawyer.

The author then circles back and writes about her father’s decline and how hard it was on the family, as he did not have the clarity he once did. Staying on the theme of loss, she writes about how the family finally had to decide to let him go.

Schulz then moves to the theme of “found.” She writes about meeting a sister writer with whom she quickly fell in love. She describes how their relationship developed and how C. (as Schulz refers to her) helped her move her parents out of their house and into a condo (loss again).

She tells us that her parents loved C. and she describes meeting C.’s family who were completely accepting of her. The author provides a detailed account of their wedding and how well the two families got along. This was remarkable in that Schulz’s family was midwestern and nonobservant Jewish while C.’s family was Southern and devoutly Christian.

Near the end of the book Schulz tells us that she and C. were expecting a child. She did not say which one of them was pregnant nor how the pregnancy came about, but I suppose those things (especially the latter) are none of our business.

Lost and Found describes a lot of pain and a lot of joy. Rather like life.

Dessert Can Save the World

Dessert Can Save the World coverDessert Can Save the World: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes for a Stubbornly Joyful Existence
Christina Tosi
read by the author
Random House Audio, March 08, 2022
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with a Audible credit

I found this book when the “Newly Published” column on page 4 of the New York Times Book Review mentioned it as a noteworthy new audiobook. The reviewer was spot on in saying that this book deserved attention.

Christina Tosi writes about her obsession with dessert. When she was a child she would eat her grandmother’s raw cookie dough, ignoring warnings about salmonella. Her grandmother stored baked cookies in the freezer in the basement until it was time to serve them, but Christina would sneak down there and steal the wrapped cookies. When she was in high school she delighted in developing her own creations. She was always a rebel. She writes, “I knew from a relatively young age that I was going to be uncool, which I was totally cool with.”

After high school when she realized it was time to leave home, she went to New York City where she attended culinary school by day and worked in a restaurant at night. She describes in detail the grueling work and the long hours in the restaurant business. But her rebel nature showed itself in these jobs. Head coverings were of course required in the kitchen, and there was a standard white cap the chefs expected staff to wear. Tosi one day, however, donned a colored scarf. She got away with it.

Tosi writes about how she worked in all aspects of the culinary world: on the line in the kitchen, the front of the house, and the dessert corner of the kitchen. This confirmed for her, she says, that it was the dessert part of that world she loved the most.

Tosi was working at a high-end New York restaurant as the head pastry chef when the landlord evicted the tenant next door. She took that as the opportunity to open her own bakery, Milk Bar. What she was not prepared for was the immediate success of her venture. She writes about the ridiculously long hours and the challenges she faced. She describes her stubbornness while finally realizing that: 1) she could automate the baking processes, and 2) she could rely on others and not carry the whole burden herself.

The author includes an interlude on what she calls dirty dessert secrets. These are taking snack and cookie items from the grocery store (or the gas station minimart, or even, she says, from the dollar store) and mashing them up with other items found in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry. Most of those sounded unappetizing to me. She insists that everyone has a dirty dessert secret and says she wouldn’t believe you if you told her that you didn’t have one. I have to say, though, that I don’t. I’m quite happy with the chocolate chip cookies I bake from the tub of cookie dough I buy at my Winco supermarket. (For a while it was Snickers fun size, but for now I’m stuck on the cookies.) Really, I don’t need a mashup.

Fortunately, however, there are a lot of more conventional dessert recipes in the book, many of which are very appealing. If you listen to the audiobook you can also download a PDF file containing the recipes.

Tosi writes a lot about making others happy, whether it be her own customers or people in need. At the end of the book, she discusses the work that her company has done to support charities and social justice. She says:

quoteInvite in the joy whenever, however, wherever, it comes along, be it dessert or anything else. And go all out to spread that joy to as many people in as many ways as you can. Because one act, by one person, sparks the change that, when shared, generates a revolution.

I love that Tosi narrated the book herself. Her joy in creating desserts and her enthusiasm are apparent. After listening to Dessert Can Save the World I would buy her desserts.

the demise of Entertainment Weekly

The magazine business is not what it once was. There has been a lot of consolidation in the industry and magazines have ceased publication of their print editions.

Our favorite cooking magazine for many years was Cooking Light. It was one of many magazines that Time Inc. published. Time Inc., however, wanted it to close out its business and sold all of its magazines to Meredith Corporation, known for magazines like Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies’ Home Journal. Meredith sold off magazines like Time and Sports Illustrated that didn’t fit its lifestyle niche. Other magazines it shut down, including Cooking Light. For some reason I didn’t receive notice of the shutdown, and it was only several months later that I said to myself, “Hey, we haven’t gotten a Cooking Light for a while!” I did an online search and quickly found out why. (Meredith has since revived Cooking Light in a sort of overpriced quarterly zombie form without the extensive test kitchen and writing staff that caused them to shut it down in the first place.)

Entertaiment Weekly postcardOne of the Time Inc. publications that Meredith kept was Entertainment Weekly, a magazine that Terry and I have subscribed to for many years. However, last October Dotdash, a company controlled by media maven Barry Diller, bought Meredith and all of its magazines, creating Dotdash Meredith. In February the new company announced that Entertainment Weekly, along with Eating Well, Health, and Parents would cease print publication and exist only online. Dotdash Meredith CEO Neil Vogel said in a memo to employees, “We have said from the beginning, buying Meredith was about buying brands, not magazines or websites.”

The final issue of EW was the April edition. (Oddly, Entertainment Weekly kept that name even after it went monthly.) Production was nearly complete on that issue when Vogel made the announcement, so the end of the road merited only a single obtuse mention on the back page compilation of trending topics.

Since we had a year left on our subscription, Terry and I were wondering how the fine folks at Dotdash Meredith would handle that. They kept us wondering until here in mid-April when we finally received a postcard (printed about as cheaply as it could possibly be) telling us that the balance of our subscription would arrive in the form of People magazine. People. Gee, thanks, guys. The card did say that we could request a refund instead, but as I had renewed a couple of times at a highly discounted rate, it hardly seems worth the trouble.

It’s a digital world, but then I am as guilty as anyone of going digital.

Whole Earth

Whole Earth coverWhole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand
John Markoff
Penguin Press (March 22, 2022), 416 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $25.97

If you spent any time in bookstores in the 1970s or if you were around the counterculture of the time, you no doubt encountered one of the many editions of the Whole Earth Catalog. Perhaps you subscribed to CoEvolution Quarterly, or as I did, to its successor, Whole Earth Review. If so, you are aware that the man behind these publications was Stewart Brand.

In his comprehensive biography of Brand, author John Markoff shows Brand to be a far more complex character than you might have expected. Certainly more complex than I expected.

Brand grew up in the Midwest, but he went west to Stanford for college. Markoff mentions that Brand joined the ROTC as a freshman but says nothing about his ROTC activities as an undergraduate. The military resurfaces when Brand graduates and Markoff notes that Brand wore his dress uniform to his graduation. The author then goes on to Brand’s time in the military and describes how Brand failed in his training to become part of the elite Ranger corps. Ultimately Brand got himself assigned as a photographer and was eventually able to secure early release from active duty. This came with the obligation for Reserve activities, reminders for which Brand tended to ignore.

After leaving the army he returned to the Bay Area where he experimented with LSD. He involved himself in some of the legal, controlled experiments at the time and also later indulged recreationally. Brand hung around the fringes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters but was never fully a part of that group. Native American culture fascinated him and did a photo essay of the Warm Springs tribe.

Brand became intrigued by Buckminster Fuller’s philosophy and the idea of innovative uses for tools. He opened a business in Menlo Park he called the Truck Store where he sold books and tools. That, along with his fascination with Fuller’s work, eventually led to the Whole Earth Catalog.

Markoff describes in detail the creation and the ups and downs of the Whole Earth Catalog and its various editions. He also discusses Brand’s fascination with technology, and his creation of the WELL, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, in the mid-1980s, which was an early online public online forum, though far from the first. If you think that managing online behavior is a recent phenomenon this book will tell you that Brand and his WELL manager, Tex, faced those same issues from the beginning.

Brand was not the maven of the counterculture that the Whole Earth Catalog might suggest. He had some conservative views and helped found the Global Business Network, where he gave lectures and presentations to corporations. He believed in city life (as opposed to rural) and in nuclear power as ways of combating global climate change. When he published these views in his book Whole Earth Discipline in October 2009 he made enemies and many who knew Brand’s work felt betrayed.

Stewart Brand was married twice. Both wives were key to the successes of his various businesses. His first wife, Lois Jennings, was the glue that held the Whole Earth Catalog together. That marriage ended in divorce, though Markoff’s subtext implies that the marriage could have worked had Brand put in a little more effort. Of his second wife, Markoff writes, “Patty Phelan had made him a nicer person.” That marriage lasted, and Phelan was an entrepreneur in her own right.

If the Whole Earth culture is part of your past or if it otherwise interests you Markoff’s biography will tell you as much about Stewart Brand as you could possibly absorb.

reducing our gas usage

On a regular basis I get an email from the gas company telling me about our natural gas usage. The message has always told me we are using slightly more gas than average users in similar houses. This has always puzzled me because while we do a lot of cooking we have the thermostat set to minimize our house heating. The most recent message I received, however, told me that while we were using more gas than the most efficient users, we were using significantly less gas than average users.

We hadn’t changed any of our gas usage habits, so at first I thought that this must be because of the new attic insulation we had installed. But I looked at the period that the report covered and it turned out to be February 16 to March 17. That couldn’t be it, because the insulation was installed on March 14.

That left one other explanation: the new water heater we had installed on February 3. Terry had noticed there was water seeping abound the base of the water heater, so we decided we had better get it taken care of. The water heater didn’t look that old to me, but the plumber, who does a lot of work here in Four Seasons, said that it was the original water heater installed when the house was built. That would make it sixteen years old, so yeah, I guess it was due to be replaced.

So we are using less gas now. That is a Good Thing.

natural gas usage chart

Minor Characters

Minor Characters coverMinor Characters: A Beat Memoir
Joyce Johnson
read by Samara Naeymi
Brilliance Audio, March 16, 2021
$21.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

Joyce Johnson’s memoir has gone through multiple iterations. Houghton Mifflin first published the book in 1983. Johnson wrote a new introduction for the book on the occasion of a 1994 reissue. Then Ann Douglas penned a thoughtful and illuminating introductory essay about American women in the 1950s for a 1999 edition. Finally, Samara Naeymi recorded the unabridged audiobook version, which Brilliance Audio released only last year.

When we read about the Beat Generation of the 1950s, we generally encounter the names of men: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Neal Cassady, to name the most prominent figures. You will find all these men mentioned in Johnson’s book. But the prominence of the men diminishes the role women played in the movement. Johnson writes about her own involvement close to the movement but behind the scenes, and about how her close friend Elise Cowen and the wives of the Beats were very much a part of that world.

Johnson recounts her childhood and how her mother desperately wanted her to be a success in musical theater. That was not what Joyce wanted. She describes how she and her friend took the subway to Washington Square to participate in the folk music scene, telling their parents that they were doing something more wholesome. Her father was a corporate accountant who got little pleasure out of life other than playing the horses with the bookie at the newsstand and stopping by the bar for an occasional beer.

Johnson’s mother was intent that Joyce attend Barnard College, making her one of the few Jewish people to attend what has then an all-women’s school. (She was born Joyce Glassman.) Johnson spent four years at Barnard but did not graduate because the school had a physical education requirement that she ignored.

The author describes finding secretarial work after her non-graduation and maintaining a social life. Margaret Sanger had recently opened her birth control clinic in New York City, and the word among the young, unmarried Barnard alumna was that one could visit the clinic using a made-up married name to obtain the necessary services. Johnson admits that there was no logical reason for her hesitancy to do that herself. That omission had its consequences, and she describes in detail her experience of obtaining an illegal abortion by a seedy doctor in an unpleasant part of the city.

Elise Cowen and Johnson were close friends in college and maintained that friendship after their Barnard days, sometimes sharing an apartment. Cowen met Allen Ginsberg, with whom she immediately became infatuated. This was shortly before Ginsberg acknowledged his homosexuality, but Cowen never gave up hope, futile as that was.

It was Ginsberg who brought Johnson and Jack Kerouac together. Kerouac, constantly without money, suggested that he stay in Johnson’s apartment, something to which Johnson readily agreed. Kerouac was not one to stay in one place for long, however, and was always off to one place or another, whether it be Mexico, San Francisco, or Florida at his mother’s house. But he always had a place to stay with Johnson when he was in New York City.

Johnson makes a point of noting that Kerouac, always on the road (book reference intended), never headed out with a woman. Except for his mother. He moved her from Florida to San Francisco, back to Florida, and then to the New York countryside once his income from On the Road permitted his purchase of a house there. Loyalty to his mother transcended all other loyalties. He invited Johnson to visit their new home in New York, but afterward told her not to come back. His mother did not like her much. Among other things, she used too much hot water washing the dishes.

The author is clear-eyed in her perception of herself and others. She recognizes Kerouac had no romantic interest in her. (Sexual interest was a different matter.) She writes about how Kerouac kept insisting that they were “friends.” She also admits that she would have immediately taken him in had he chosen to commit. Johnson tells us that Kerouac never owned a typewriter. He always borrowed someone else’s, or very occasionally rented one. I have written here about how Kerouac famously composed On the Road on a scroll, and I have said that Kerouac scholars have said that the scroll consisted of sheets of paper taped together. Johnson says that he actually used a teletype roll that one of his friends obtained for him.

Johnson was at the center of the media frenzy after the publication On the Road. Kerouac had just returned to New York City and was living with her at the time. Johnson fielded telephone calls, sorted through the mail, and made sure Kerouac arrived on time for radio and television interviews. He was neither a gracious nor a pleasant guest for his media hosts.

Near the end of the book Johnson writes about breaking up with Kerouac (as if they were actually a couple in any genuine sense of the term). He had taken up with another woman and Johnson had reached her limit. It was outside a restaurant in New York City when she told him that enough was enough.

The final chapter is about the women in her world. In particular, she writes about how Cowen, who had been in a mental hospital, committed suicide rather than move to Florida with her parents. Although Johnson saw success as a writer, she tells us that the decade of the sixties did not hold she same attraction for her as the fifties did.

Samara Naeymi is superb in her reading of Johnson’s work and Johnson has structured her memoir with the flow of a novel. Listening to Minor Characters was time well spent.