The Greatest Invention
Translated by Todd Portnowitz
'Ferrara’s book is an introduction to writing as a process of revelation, but it’s also a celebration of these things still undeciphered, and many other tantalising mysteries besides.' Spectator
This book tells the story of our greatest invention. Or, it almost does. Almost, because while the story has a beginning – in fact, it has many beginnings, not only in Mesopotamia, 3,100 years before the birth of Christ, but also in China, Egypt and Central America – and it certainly has a middle, one that snakes through the painted petroglyphs of Easter Island, through the great machines of empires and across the desks of inspired, brilliant scholars, the end of the story remains to be written.
The invention of writing allowed humans to create a record of their lives and to persist past the limits of their lifetimes. In the shadows and swirls of ancient inscriptions, we can decipher the stories they sought to record, but we can also tease out the timeless truths of human nature, of our ceaseless drive to connect, create and be remembered.
The Greatest Invention chronicles an uncharted journey, one filled with past flashes of brilliance, present-day scientific research and the faint, fleeting echo of writing’s future. Professor Silvia Ferrara, a modern-day adventurer who travels the world studying ancient texts, takes us along with her; we touch the knotted, coloured strings of the Incan khipu and consider the case of the Phaistos disk. Ferrara takes us to the cutting edge of decipherment, where high-powered laser scanners bring tears to an engineer’s eye, and further still, to gaze at the outline of writing’s future. The Greatest Invention lifts the words off every page and changes the contours of the world around us – just keep reading.
'The Greatest Invention is a celebration not of achievements, but of moments of illumination and "the most important thing in the world: our desire to be understood."' TLS
Brisk, simple to follow and unfussy – though the author has a way with a helpful metaphor, for which we non-experts are grateful. Only occasionally does it turn complicated; but this is where much of the fun is to be found [ . . . ] Ferrara’s book is an introduction to writing as a process of revelation, but it’s also a celebration of these things still undeciphered, and many other tantalising mysteries besides.
Daniel Hahn, Spectator
In Silvia Ferrara’s conception of it, writing is a fragile object, nurtured over many phases of human development . . . The Greatest Invention is a celebration not of achievements, but of moments of illumination and 'the most important thing in the world: our desire to be understood.'
Lydia Wilson, The Times Literary Supplement
Ferrara says she wrote the book the way she talks to friends over dinner, and that’s exactly how it reads. Instead of telling a chronological history of writing, she moves freely from script to script, island to island . . . She is constantly by our side, prodding us with questions, offering speculations, reporting on exciting discoveries . . . . her book doubles as a manifesto for collaborative research.
Martin Puchner, The New York Times Book Review