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Mon, 10 Aug 2009 08:41
Andrew Robinson was literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement from 1994-2006 and is now a visiting fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of The Story of Writing, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B and Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts.
Mark Thwaite: What made you want to write about Writing and Script?
Andrew Robinson: I suppose any professional writer is bound to have at least some interest in how writing began, spread around the ancient world, and then developed into the writing systems we use today -- ranging from alphabets to the Chinese and Japanese scripts. After all, without scripts, there would be no writers, not to mention no history or science. For me personally, my serious interest began while I was working for Granada Television in the 1980s. In 1989 I did some preliminary research for a television series on the origins of writing. The decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs of Central America was then at an exciting stage, and I spent time with some of the American scholars at the forefront of the research. Although the TV series never got made, I became fascinated by the subject and wrote my first book on it, The Story of Writing, which was published in 1995. I followed this with two more books on writing: The Man Who Deciphered Linear B, a biography of Michael Ventris, and Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts. I also wrote a biography of the polymath Thomas Young, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, who was the first to make real progress in deciphering the Rosetta Stone and Egyptian hieroglyphic. Before the VSI I wrote an essay on writing systems for the forthcoming, million-word Oxford Companion to the Book. So the VSI comes after long immersion in the subject.
Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write and research Writing and Script?
Andrew Robinson: The book is based on about two decades of reading and research in the subject -- starting in 1989. The main challenge, as with all VSIs, was to distil what I knew into a concise but still accessible format. But having been a journalist for many years, as well as an author, I had a good idea of what aspects of writing and script interest the general reader, and I didn't find the distillation difficult. In fact, I wrote the book fast, within a couple of months.
Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a screen? Straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
Andrew Robinson: When I started writing in the 1980s, I used to write longhand. Amazing to recall, at one time I wondered if I would be able to write directly on a screen. Now I can't imagine not having a computer to write. But I still do almost all of my research notes with a pencil. I edit on screen, print out, read, amend by hand, then produce a revised version on screen -- again and again. Wasteful of paper, I'm afraid, but I can't absorb a text properly on a screen. Having been literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement for a decade or so, I guess I find it easy to detach myself from my own writing. Editing is enormously important to me. I pity those ancient scribes who could draft their writing only on a clay tablet, papyrus or some other intractable or expensive material. Just imagine having to start all over again, if you wrote the wrong hieroglyph in the finished version!
Mark Thwaite: The VSIs are very compact -- how did you go about squeezing all your research into such a small frame? Was there anything important you had to leave out!?
Andrew Robinson: A recent reference work on the world's writing systems (which happens to be published by OUP), runs to almost 1000 substantial pages. So there's no question of including all of the world's scripts in a VSI. If you tried to, you'd end up with an unreadable catalogue. You have to be brutally selective among the scripts, without leaving out any of the minor scripts that rightly fascinate people, for example runes and the rongorongo script of Easter Island. On the other hand, scripts generally belong to families, for example, the European alphabets, and the Far Eastern scripts influenced by Chinese characters. Moreover, all scripts -- whether they are Egyptian hieroglyphs, the English alphabet or Japanese kana and kanji -- are mixtures of phonetic and non-phonetic signs. All full writing is based on spoken languages -- there is no such thing as a universal writing system, and there never will be. So, despite the diversity of appearance, there are groups of scripts you can focus on, and an underlying single principle of operation. In the end the subject falls quite neatly into sections, such as: how writing began; how it developed and diffused; how scripts like cuneiform disappeared from use; how they were deciphered; the life of scribes and how they physically wrote; how computers have changed writing -- and, crucially, not changed it.
Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you learned anything from their responses to your book?
Andrew Robinson: This particular book is only just published. I certainly read the critics, usually with trepidation. It's extremely interesting to see the range of responses one gets as a writer. I recall a review -- which writer does not? -- in The Economist, which loved my book The Man Who Deciphered Linear B for being swift and demanding, while another reviewer in Time magazine disparaged the book for the very same reasons. Perhaps I learnt from such comments in writing the VSI.
Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing Writing and Script? How did you overcome it?
Andrew Robinson: With so many scripts to choose from, you have to accept that it is better to pick well and discuss a few scripts in some depth, rather than skating over a large number of scripts and boring the reader who has never heard of them. I think I've chosen a mixture of famous scripts, like Egyptian hieroglyphic and Chinese characters, which everyone wants to know about, and relatively obscure scripts with interesting stories attached to them, like Minoan Linear B and the Hangul script of Korea. The most important solution was to give the reader compelling ideas to latch onto, such as "Did writing start in one civilisation and spread, or in several civilisations independently?", illustrated by attractive examples -- rather than a catalogue of scripts. There are also rather more illustrations in this VSI than in some other VSIs, because you really can't describe a script -- you have to show it, if it's important.
Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
Andrew Robinson: My 'ideal reader' for a VSI would be the person I was when I first started working on the subject in 1989: intrigued but not informed. Most of my other books have been written for the general reader, and I like this challenge. But with a VSI, I am acutely conscious that many readers will be students, so I think I also have a responsibility to be accurate and unbiased, without being dry.
Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?
Andrew Robinson: I'm in the middle of writing a book on exceptional creativity in the arts and sciences, to be published by the trade science imprint of OUP, with research support from the John Templeton Foundation. One of the geniuses I discuss in the book is Jean-Francois Champollion, who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphic in the 1820s, after 'borrowing' a few ideas from Thomas Young, the first decipherer of the Rosetta Stone (whose biography I wrote).
Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
Andrew Robinson: I wrote a lot about modern Indian culture to begin with. The person who has influenced me most is probably Satyajit Ray, whose biographer I am. Best known as a classic film director, Ray was also a bestselling fiction and non-fiction writer, illustrator and music composer, and one of the great artistic figures of the 20th century. He is certainly my favourite creative figure, but if I had to name a favourite writer, it might be V. S. Naipaul, both for his fiction and non-fiction. Whatever one may think of Naipaul as a man, he showed me the power of writing if the writer dedicates himself to writing -- and he's also marvellously witty.
Mark Thwaite: Favourite quote?
Andrew Robinson: I rather like -- which I have used in my Lost Languages -- "The worm thinks it strange and foolish that man does not eat his books." (From Fireflies, epigrams by Rabindranath Tagore)
Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?
Andrew Robinson: Try not to spread yourself too much in the subjects you choose. And combine writing with a day job, at least to begin with.
Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?
Andrew Robinson: Let's hope the Roman alphabet survives for another millennium.
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