Customs house STORIES FROM 'THE CHRONICLE'

'Memory, Reproducible and Revisable'


By Lawrence Biemiller

Houston -- Stuck for a night at George Bush Intercontinental because of bad weather up north, I took a van to one of those look-alike box hotels, got a room, and went to find dinner. A Waffle House up the road turned out to be my only option, so I walked in and sat down at the counter.

A boisterous party of 13 Russians had arrived shortly before me, and a glance at the grill confirmed that they had already ordered. Hillocks of hash browns sizzled in front of a long row of hamburger patties. The lone cook — a tall, skinny, tattooed kid with dyed-blond hair — was biting his lower lip in concentration and prowling like Rilke's panther from the grill to the waffle irons and back. Quick flicks of his wrist turned burger after burger; he buttered slices of toast with one sure pass of a knife each; he filled one waffle iron after another with a smooth spin of a ladle. A deft motion with his right arm launched an omelet briefly into the air above a small skillet, and the omelet came neatly back down on its other side. I cook just enough to know I was watching a master, fast and evidently fearless. He was putting on such a good show that I wanted to round up the Russians and make them come watch too, maybe even applaud the omelet flips.

When I gave the waitress my order — Fiesta omelet, hash browns instead of grits — she repeated it to the kid, and he said "Got it" without looking up. Then he added another plate to the long line waiting on a wooden shelf that separated him from the grill, tossing on a tiny plastic container of jelly. I realized that he had coded the plates so he could keep track of what he was working on with just a glance. Plates with two slices of cheese ended up with double cheeseburgers, which the Russians were apparently big on. Plates marked with containers of syrup got waffles. Right away I thought of the ancient Sumerians and the invention of writing.

According to "Technologies of Writing," the new exhibition I had just seen at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, writing traces its origins to little clay markers the Sumerians started using more than 9,000 years ago to keep track of things like grain and cattle. A clay cone represented a small measure of grain, for instance, while a sphere meant a larger measure, and a cylinder stood for an animal. A few thousand years later, around 3500 BC, markings incised in such tokens let the simple shapes represent more things, like wool and mats. Soon the incised cones and spheres and cylinders were being pressed into wet clay tablets to make records of what the tokens represented, and finally — by about 3100 BC — the Sumerians dispensed with the tokens in favor of recording information with marks made directly on tablets.

The Sumerians were the first to invent writing, but not the last, according to the exhibit's curator, Kurt Heinzelman, an English professor at the university. "Actually, writing gets invented three or four times," he told me during a tour of the exhibit. The Egyptians may have learned about the Sumerian invention, he said, or they may have invented writing again on their own, as did the Chinese and the Mayans. In any event, he said, writing was at first accounting's handmaiden — what's written on the oldest surviving Sumerian clay tablets aren't poems or postcards but things like lists of animals slaughtered by a butcher before being taken to market: one fat sheep, one lean sheep, one she-goat, and so forth.

From accounting, said Mr. Heinzelman, writing advanced to recording the deeds of kings, and to codifying laws. But what we think of today as one of writing's main uses remained rare for centuries — "Communication was a real low priority," said Mr. Heinzelman. Partly that's because literacy also remained uncommon for the next several thousand years. Until Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s, there wasn't much for the average person to read, aside from inscriptions on buildings and coins. Scholars have estimated that there were only about 30,000 books in all of Europe when Gutenberg began printing his Bible, Mr. Heinzelman said. Fifty years after that, the scholars estimate, the number of books had risen to between 10 million and 12 million.

The exhibit contains about 300 items, most of them from the Ransom Center's vast collection. As its name suggests, the exhibit centers on writing-related technology, covering such topics as the making of papyrus, the recycling of parchment, and the spread of paper eastward after its invention in China in AD 105. A whole display case details the history and manufacture of pencils — although graphite has been used for writing since the 16th century, it's still called "lead" after the older practice of writing with soft metals. A highlight of the display is a bulky, century-old sharpener, called the Jupiter Pencil Pointer, that weighs five pounds and still belongs to the Texas General Land Office. A nearby timeline shows that the typewriter, surprisingly, was invented more than 10 years before the fountain pen.

The exhibit is particularly strong in early Bibles and other rare books. A manuscript edition of Horace, made for a rich Venetian by the 15th-century scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito, must rank among the world's most beautiful books, with striking Roman titles and flawless italic glosses ornamenting wide margins. But other rarities are compelling as well, such as a 1580 map with both Aztec and Spanish notations, and a beautifully handwritten 1952 letter in which the architect Michael Ventris tells a collaborator that he has deciphered the mysterious ancient script known as Linear B, found at Knossos on the island of Crete. Linear B was a script for writing Greek, Ventris reported, adding that it had been difficult to make sense of because Linear B did not distinguish L from R and because several letters, including L, N, R, and S, were not written when they came at the ends of syllables. "This is one stage worse than the Cypriot syllabary," Ventris wrote.

The exhibit includes several other examples of writings about one writing technology or another. A letter from Thomas Jefferson to Charles Willson Peale, for instance, seeks the loan of a device for making two copies of a letter at once. A letter from Lewis Carroll praises Thomas Edison's electric pen, which poked tiny holes in stencil paper as one wrote; the perforated sheet could then be used to make copies. Mark Twain, in an 1874 letter, says he is "utterly surprised" to find that he can write as quickly with a typewriter as with a pen, "& make more mistakes, too." Indeed, he has added the "t" in "too" with a pencil. (Displayed elsewhere are nine type balls for the iconic IBM Selectric.)

"Technologies of Writing," which will remain open through August 6, is nothing if not wide ranging. Anne Sexton's typing textbook is there, along with her portable Royal Quiet De Luxe. A desk used for several years by Edgar Allan Poe stands near the Dictaphone with which Erle Stanley Gardner composed many of his Perry Mason novels (which once sold as many as 26,000 copies a day). There are also a rare early edition of Shakespeare's sonnets, a copy of Edward Gorey's 1982 pop-up book The Dwindling Party, and eight pages of a radiogram newspaper dispatch filed by Ernest Hemingway when he was covering the Spanish Civil War. Lest you forget where you are, there's also a handsome cowhide into which are burned the brands of Texas ranches.

I had not been at the Waffle House long before I regretted coming to dinner without a notebook. It's a fact of life for a writer that if an unusual experience cannot be immediately recorded for future use, he feels like it might as well never have happened at all. As soon as I got back to the box hotel, I started writing down everything I could remember about the kid, the Russians, my waitress, the other waitress, and my Fiesta omelet (the kid went heavy on the jalapeño). Altogether this amounted to 1,416 words, including a Grant Wood reference involving my waitress and a digression concerning a recent performance of Measure for Measure.

"Writing is memory, reproducible and revisable," Mr. Heinzelman had said while he was showing me around. "It's a very large part of what makes us human." He showed me one of the 122 notebooks that make up the lifelong diary of George Ives, an advocate for the rights of British homosexuals who coded entries about lovers and other racy topics. Beside that is the diary of a French architect who recorded scandals — his own and others' — in a script he made up out of Arabic and Sanskrit. Representing revisions are, among other things, a page of Byron's very messy manuscript for Don Juan and a sheet of James Joyce's fussy corrections to page proofs of Ulysses.

The most memorable item in the exhibit is one you don't have to be a writer or a scholar to appreciate — one I'm sure the kid at the Waffle House would find as unforgettable as I did. It's a sheet of paper discovered among the late playwright Arthur Miller's drafts for his play After the Fall, and on it is the perfect lipstick imprint of a pair of lips parted for a kiss. Underneath is scrawled, in the same lipstick, "Good morning my dearest have a good day." Miller, said Mr. Heinzelman, denied that the lips were those of his former wife, Marilyn Monroe, but if the imprint and the message aren't Monroe's, they should be. You can picture her kissing the page, holding the lipstick just so to print the message. What better use of writing could there be, except perhaps to pass such a story on to you?

Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published March 3, w006.