The Written Word on Radio

An overall view of the paper copy of the Gutenberg Bible held at the British Library.

This week Melvyn Bragg is having a special series on BBC Radio 4 about the development of the written word and how it has shaped our intellectual history. Each episode looks interesting, but the second episode especially so:

In the second instalment of his survey of the written word, Melvyn Bragg traces the evolution of writing technology from the time of classical antiquity to the invention of printing. He discovers the origins of the book, and encounters the earliest surviving intact example in the Western world.

The entire episode, along with other installments from the series, can be listened to online. I haven’t had a chance yet to hear it myself, but it was highly recommended to me. I wanted to pass along the recommendation. [Update: I finally had a listen. It’s good!]

15 thoughts on “The Written Word on Radio”

  1. Thanks. I will try and make time to listen. I am currently reading the oldest autobiography in English which has yet been found – ‘The book of Margery Kempe’. She was illiterate and dictated the book late in life, but it was extraoindinarily important to her that her life be recorded in book form. I have not got very far, but it is fascinating – despite the fact that I suspect I would have disliked her immensely.

      • She was an intensely religious woman and believed that she spoke to Jesus and he to her. And she spent a considerable amount of time in tears lamenting the death of Christ. Among other character flaws. She convinced her husband that Jesus wanted them to take a vow of chastitiy. Now that I can understand since she had 14 children over a twenty year period. I will let you know more about it as my reading progresses.

  2. I find Bragg’s series on the development of writing informative and fascinating BUT I hate the use of the PRESENT tense to talk about PAST events! It happens all the time, as if historians want to live in a perpetual present. Let them use the past and leave the present to detectives working on a robbery – ‘He breaks the kitchen window . . . .’

    • I didn’t notice the tense so much, but I found myself wishing it had been the topic of a television program rather than on the radio (it’s not often I’d say that). Or that at least there were some better supplementary pictures that could be easily seen at the site. I wanted to see the books as they were being talked about. It is a fascinating series though, indeed.

  3. Thank you for a wonderful series. Lots of good things to say but will be brief. You quoted an image from Pompei, saying it was one of the earliest depictions of the act of writing – yes indeed, but there are older ones, eg this Old Kingdom Egyptian Scribe in the act of writing, dated approx 2500 BCE

    Also, there are earlier origins of writing than cuneiform, eg model sheep in clay envelopes as receipts, the precursor of cuneiform accounting (Sumer, c 8000BCE)

    Nevertheless, thank you for condensing so much information into 5 programmes, fascinating and valuable.

  4. A revelation that you have mentioned this! Yes, I have been listening and I highly recommend you tune in too if poss. Melvyn Bragg is the arts and culture guru over here in the UK and is a fab correspondent.
    I cannot recommend Radio 4 highly enough. Incidentally, I am currently reading ‘A History of Reading’ by Steven Roger Fischer. A brilliant read. Have a look on Amazon.

    Changing the subject a little, as a paper-holic have you come across a paper called Mohawk at all? And if so have you worked with it? I’ve got some on order for my current project and very much looking forward to working with it…

    Hope you are well, and I wish you a very happy 2012!


    • I do so love the age of Internet streaming. I’m completely addicted to Radio 4! I have a little device that I plug into my computer that is essentially a tiny FM transmitter. It allows me to listen to whatever is streaming on the computer on any FM radio around the house or studio, so it’s just like being there in the UK. So I sit in the studio listening to such learned programs as The Archers. ;-) I do like Melvyn Bragg too.

      I have used Mohawk. Are you getting the more text-weight version or the heavier stuff? The Mohawk I’m thinking of has a nice smooth texture (in both weights), and is a good general use paper. It also takes inkjet printing fairly well, at least on my Epson. I’ll be curious to know what you think of it. And to see what this project is you’re making with it.

      And happy New Year to you Tan!

      • My hubbie enjoys the Archers and if he’s cooking the sunday roast he’ll either have that or Desert Island Discs on (with Kirsty Young). Do you listen to this too?

        Yes, I am looking forward to my Mowhawk delivery (although it’s late and I need it asap – typical!) and my deadline is next Thurs 19th Jan. Heck!

        Fab to hear its inkjet compatible. For my project tho’ it’s going through the offset litho process. I’m aiming big on this one in terms of quantity. As for book structure, well its essentially a folded map structure. The content page being just short of A2 size.The narrative based on a literary giant…

        This is a nail biting week and I am keeping everything crossed that it works out! And if it does, I shall post up all photos and my thoughts on my blog after next week so please do have a peek when you have time :)

        • Ah yes, I listen to Desert Island Discs as well…

          The paper wait does sound like a nail biter! It seems to be a natural law that the speed of delivery is inversely proportional to the urgency of the need for the item. Alas. I hope it shows up soon! Big in quantity? How big? I look forward to seeing the results!

          • 150 map books! Oh Golly, I really hope this all works out. I have no nails left, btw…
            Hope all’s well with you. Wondering what your current project is? I shall watch this space…

            • 150?!! Oh my! This I can’t wait to see. Good luck!

              As for me, I just joined BookArtObject and will be in their next edition. I also have a few other things I’m pondering, one inspired by my recent wisdom tooth extraction. We’ll see… I plan to post soon-ish.

              But nothing as adventurous as 150 map books… ;-)


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