The rise, zenith and fall of writing systems
STEPHEN HOUSTON (ed.). The first writing: script invention as history and process. xviii+418 pages, 123 illustrations, 2 tables. First paperback edition 2008 (first published in hardback in 2004, reprinted in 2005). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 978-0-521-83861-0 hardback £59 & $105; 978-0-521-72826-3 paperback £17.99 & $32.95.
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JOHN BAINES, JOHN BENNET & STEPHEN HOUSTON (ed.). The disappearance of writing systems: perspectives on literacy and communication. xviii+380 pages, 61 illustrations, 8 tables. 2008. London: Equinox; 978-1-84553-013-6 hardback £65.
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JOHN BAINES. Visual & written culture in Ancient Egypt. xviii+420 pages, 52 illustrations, 2 tables. 2007. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-815250-7 hardback £75.
Uniting all three books under review is one central theme, writing, but there is an interesting divergence in their focus on this topic. The first two are cross-cultural in their treatment, the third is an in-depth look at the phenomenon as it pertains to a single culture. While The first writing casts its net widely, yet loosely, concentrating on the emergence of writing in chosen regions around the world, The disappearance of writing systems, no less global in its range, takes up the long-neglected study of the opposite end of the developmental spectrum, the decline and fall of writing systems. Visual and written culture in ancient Egypt, on the other hand, covers the entire sweep of written history and culture, but in the framework of a single case study.