0b. Cuneiform

Whatever its true origins, the earliest Mesopotamian writing was still largely pictographic, utilizing simplified drawings of objects to represent those objects. Drawing curved lines in wet clay was a challenge. Instead of drawing with the point of the writing tool, generally a reed, scribes began to imprint the flat edge of a cut reed into the clay to make distinctive wedge-shaped triangular marks. Their system of writing is known today as cuneiform, from the Latin cuneus meaning wedge. Continue reading

0a. Origin Theories

By this point, humans had been drawing pictures for 30,000 years, documenting animals and people on the walls of caves.1 But those were representative drawings, depicting animals and people real or imagined. The intellectual leap of the Sumerians was the use of drawings to represent the idea of sheep—and goats and barley and everything else that needed to be recorded. These early drawings of logograms, signs that individually represent discrete objects, quickly became simplified and abstracted as scribes realized that was more efficient than drawing detailed naturalistic illustrations each time. Continue reading

Notes   [ + ]

1. The Chauvet Cave, location of the oldest known figurative cave paintings, is the subject of an awesome documentary by Werner Herzog.

0. The First Writing

Apply yourself to writing zealously; do not stay your hand… Pleasant and wealth-abounding is your palette and your roll of papyrus.
—School text from Egypt, 19th Dynasty1

Uruk, Sumer, c. 3400 BC. The civil servant was overwhelmed. With all of the sheep and goats going in and out of Uruk’s city gates, he was having trouble keeping track of it all. Had he collected taxes from that farmer already? How many sheep did that villager bring? It was all so much to remember. And what if the villager contested it? Continue reading

Notes   [ + ]

1. Dynasty XIX was c. 1292 to 1187 BC, Egyptian time being marked by dynasty and kingdom. As translated in W. V. Davies, Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

Introduction

Ta shema! Come and listen!

—The Talmud

Los Angeles, 2014. I was intrigued. As a graphic designer, I had read extensively on the history of design and typography, and as a Jewish day school alumnus, on the history of the Jews. Yet, it wasn’t until very recently that I discovered there exists a history of Jewish typography and books. (I say Jewish typography instead of Hebrew typography to include works in Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, and other languages used by Jews.) I absorbed everything I could find on the subject, which seemed to consist entirely of highly specific academic papers and museum exhibition catalogs. I emailed the illustrious Scott-Martin Kosofsky to ask if there was a more comprehensive book on the subject. He said there wasn’t. That upset me. This is my attempt to fill that void. Continue reading