History of Written Language | The Information by Gleick
Chapter 2: The Persistence of the Word (There Is No Dictionary in the Mind)
This just keeps getting better! I was tickled (yep) to see that the second chapter of The Information begins with a quote from possibly my favorite media-ecologist-theologian: Walter Ong (posts). The St. Louis University Jesuit professor is perplexingly less well-known than Marshall McLuhan, yet he informs my own thought in significant ways. His writings from the 60s and 70s apply nearly perfectly to, say, Facebook chat.
Gleick gives a great introduction to Professor Ong and his study of human thought before writing (oral culture), and echoes the famous quote of Socrates about how writing will destroy our memories:
For this invention will produce forgetfullness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixer not of memory, but of reminding, and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.
(sidenote: this common complaint about the internet in modern life was refreshed again last month in this study.)
So we enter the history of writing: pictographs and ideographs, the origin of the alphabet, and how writing froze in time previously fluid poetry and thought: like the Iliad and the Odyssey. Writing was a way of abstracting thought into it's own thing, separate from us.
And writing changed the way we think, apply logic, and categorize. It, in fact, created the idea of categorization, and of beginning, middle, and end. It allowed symbols. (for bible nerds, it's why λογος /logos can mean both "word" and "reason").
Oh, and there's a great section on Babylonian mathematics. In Cunieform. Sexagesimal. (base 60!)