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Anyone with a love of language in general will be interested in reading this pocket-sized book, which Books etc are displaying quite prominently at the moment. I picked it up a few weeks ago, having just bought another book on the alphabet, but decided to read this one first as it looked more of an exciting read. And it does have its moments. Granted, it does not purport to be a comprehensive history of the Roman, or Western, alphabet, but rather an attempt at explaining how or why this particular alphabet has come to dominate over all other alphabets or alternative writing systems. Of course, in the process of endeavouring to do this, John Man does in fact provide a potted history of writing systems and alphabets as we know them, via several fascinating diversions on the way. Of course, as you might guess, much of the history involved in this area is actually guesswork, albeit educated and, at times, persuasive guesswork. And our guide through this maze is far from reluctant to pick up the tiniest of clues and run with it far further than it perhaps deserves. It goes without saying that we'll never know exactly who first wrote what and when, and what they meant by it but it's fascinating watching historian try and piece it all together. Much of this book is conjecture, which is fine to a certain point, but Man is not always too clear in his writing about distinguishing between what is generally accepted wisdom and what is his own interesting, but less accepted, imagination at work. Given the size of this book, he certainly packs a lot in and, provided you're prepared not to take everything he says as gospel, there's much to enjoy and learn from. But as regards his success on his stated aim of proving why the alphabet we know and love has become the world's dominant writing system, if he had a persuasive argument...erm, I didn't really notice it. I'm sure it's there somew here and while I was reading it, I must have picked up on the gist of his hypothesis but, a week later, it's gone the way of all his conjecturing. Never mind, it's still a lovely little book, which helps to put a bit of structure on the history of writing, with lots of scintillating tidbits on the way. It's not meant to be an academic work, so pick up, enjoy, smile and don't worry if you can't give a lecture on the subject at the end of it.
An alphabet is a system for organising and recording thought and the very earliest letters, which demonstrate this ('a' was the first sound of the Semitic word for 'ox', 'b' for 'house'), are still with us, virtually unchanged across the millennia. And while the western world today is divided by languages, it remains largely united by alphabet. Where these letters came from and how they have evolved over the years is more than just an academic exercise. John Man's ALPHA BETA tells a thrilling story of adventure, passion and intrigue.