The banality of writing

What a strange thing writing is. The Woman with wax tablets from the fresco in Pompeii may have understood the miracle of the written word (National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inventory no. 9084)

It’s hard to underestimate the conveniences of modern writing. It’s never been easier to put pen to paper, if indeed that is still something we do. Economically, things have never been better. Pens are cheap, paper is even cheaper, stationary is widely available and literacy is acquired for free almost everywhere in the world. The technology of writing is also at its most advanced since ink first started flowing over 5,000 years ago. The variety of writing materials today, fountain pens, felt-tip, ballpoint, rollerball, gel, gives the measure of this technologically advanced age of writing.

The banality of writing.

We take for granted the ease with which we write. That we don’t have to sharpen the quill, change dozens of quills in the life of a draft, dip the nib in the inkwell repeatedly, wrestle with the tools while figuring out how the writing should be.

While most human activities have gone increasingly more professionalised over time, writing has grown decidedly de-professionalised. There are still calligraphers, visual artists specialised in letter forms, but writing has fallen irrevocably into the public domain. It’s been a long descent that mobilised all the resources of our culture. Writing is so central to everything that we do that illiteracy is one of the most debilitating deficiencies of our time.

A thousand years ago in Europe, most people didn’t think much of writing. A small group of individuals engaged in literate activities, while everyone else didn’t care. Today, almost everyone of us writes regularly – but most of us probably still don’t think much about it. The banality of writing is not a banal thing.

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