This review is brought to you by the ingenuity of the human race and its invention of alphabets, paper, pens, printing presses, typewriters and so on, all the way through to Microsoft Word and MacBooks. Writing, not just for those of us who try to get paid for it, is a magnificent thing, as this major exhibition at the British Library shows.
Starting with a Mesoamerican carved stone, the snaking display cabinets lead visitors from the origins of writing through to its emoji’d present and unknown future. In other words: from tablets to tablets.
Towards the beginning is a linguistic geekfest describing how different languages use consonants, vowels and syllables in their respective written forms. There are no apologies made for its inherent nerdiness as an exhibition, which, save for a few semi-interactive bits, is as quietly contemplative as the art of putting pen to paper.
But if morphology and graphemes don’t float your boat (because you had better things to study at university, yes?) there’s also plenty here that’s either beautiful (illuminated manuscripts), fascinating (a wooden printing press), or very funny (playwright John Osborne’s telegram declaring ‘open war all the way’ on a theatre critic).
It’s weakest in the ‘future’ section, which doesn’t really propose anything futuristic except for noting that despite all the hard work of Steve Jobs we’re still signing up for calligraphy lessons in Hackney and salivating over leather-bound journals.
One of the sections is labelled ‘People and Writing’, but to be honest that could easily be the title of the whole show. Writing is, of course, about communication, making yourself heard or leaving some kind of a record for prosperity (like ‘Rosemary woz ’ere’). Which means there’s something quite moving about imagining the human who, 3,600 years ago, dashed those hieroglyphs into that limestone. It’s like a little conversation happening across the ages. Hello, ancient buddy! [insert: emoji wave].