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the Complete Review
the complete review - history

Reading and Writing
in Babylon

Dominique Charpin

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To purchase Reading and Writing in Babylon

Title: Reading and Writing in Babylon
Author: Dominique Charpin
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 251 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Reading and Writing in Babylon - US
Reading and Writing in Babylon - UK
Reading and Writing in Babylon - Canada
Lire et écrire à Babylone - Canada
Reading and Writing in Babylon - India
Lire et écrire à Babylone - France
  • French title: Lire et écrire à Babylone
  • Translated by Jane Marie Todd
  • With over 50 illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, interesting introduction and overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 22/7/2011 Eleanor Robson

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) ground-breaking and fascinating contribution to the study of ancient literacy, readable by all-comers. (...) Sadly for Charpin, and frustratingly for the reader, his translator has not always done justice to his enviably clear prose." - Eleanor Robson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Reading and Writing in Babylon is a concise history and overview of cuneiform writing and contemporary scholarship about it. Cuneiform was written on clay, and while, as Charpin notes, it "completely vanished from human knowledge" in the Christian era, some 500,000 cuneiform 'texts' have been found, and it has been possible to figure out a great deal about the writing system, the languages that it was used for, and what was actually recorded in this way (and why). Several languages were written in cuneiform, beginning with Sumerian and then Akkadian -- and the two languages branching off from it, Assyrian and Babylonian --, but also including Hittite and the more obscure Hurrian and Elamite. With cuneiform signs having both syllabic and logographic values (often more than one of each for each sign), it was difficult to decipher -- and Charpin notes:

No doubt Assyriology would be more popular if cuneiform writing were as appealing as Egyptian hieroglyphics and if a genius had early on provided a key to it. But such is not the case.
       Cuneiform is a three-dimensional writing system, which has also made it difficult to render in two dimensions. As Charpin also notes, however, the medium of choice also has distinct advantages:
clay possesses one considerable advantage: it is resistant to fire, water, and magnetic disturbances. In short, in a few thousand years, our photographs, books, and hard disks willl no doubt have disappeared, but our collection of cuneiform tablets will still be there.
       (Well, maybe -- after all, clay is rather readily crushed. Indeed, he suggests that there was a great deal of recycling of the clay tablets, too -- and notes that only during specific periods were tablets also treated for permanence -- i.e. baked --; amusingly enough the collection of the library of Ashurbanipal was only (unintentionally) baked when the town burned down.)
       Charpin has chapters on three different kinds of writing: correspondence; oaths, contracts, and treaties; and "literary" works (his quotation marks). There are surprising bits of information about each of these, from how correspondence was relayed -- the tablets read to the recipient, for example -- to the fact that there were also envelopes for these clay-missives, which revealed whether the message may have been tampered with. While the Code of Hammurabi might suggest a very written-based system of law, Charpin shows that oral agreements long dominated, and that only eventually did it become clear that there were some added benefits to having written agreements -- especially when the witnesses or original parties to an agreement died or no longer remembered the specifics.
       Charpin considers also who did the reading and writing in these times, and finds it not solely restricted to a small elite. Nevertheless, there's also the sad observation that writing still only served a very specific and narrow purpose, as:
In Mesopotamia, there was no "free" reading: no one is ever depicted reading for pleasure.
       The question of the nature of the archives and libraries of the time is also an interesting one: Charpin notes that: "the problem of readers has almost never been considered", but it's obviously a fascinating one. Certainly, the locals took their libraries seriously:
Many colophons curse anyone who carries off a tablet. The threat is often a terrible one for a scribe, namely blindness: "Anyone who carries off this tablet, may Shamash carry off his eyes !" In other cases the guilty party is even threatened with death
       Reading and Writing in Babylon offers a good and very broad overview of all aspects of cuneiform writing, from the training of scribes and the specifics of making the marks in the clay to different kinds of texts, which Charpin also often relates to the history of the period. Much remains speculation -- with Charpin pointing out a variety of theories and opinions, where relevant --, but Charpin presents a convincing larger picture. And even those not very familiar with Mesopotamian history should find his exposition clear enough -- and the details fascinating enough -- to enjoy the book.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 August 2011

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Reading and Writing in Babylon: Cuneiform texts: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dominique Charpin teaches at the Sorbonne.

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