Wednesday, September 24, 2008

a perishable brand

“The Phoenician invention of the alphabet [supposedly] served the purpose of commercial record keeping rather than the more noble purpose of literary production. (I remember finding on the shelves of a country house I once rented a mildewed history book by Will and Ariel Durant describing the Phoenicians as the ‘merchant race.’ I was tempted to throw it in the fireplace.) Well, it now seems that the Phoenicians wrote [literature], but using a perishable brand of papyrus that did not stand the biodegradative assaults of time.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb uses the example to argue that we can’t use lack of evidence for something as evidence that it didn’t exist. We don’t find Phoenician poems? They must not have had them! Or maybe they wrote their poems on scrolls that were handier to carry around, relegating financial records to clay tablets because nobody needed to whisper that sort of thing by moonlight beside a bower while the brook tinkled over stones?

I’m amused by the dig at the Durants. They are responsible for The Story of Civilization, a Euro-centric series of hefty histories that purport to survey human time. The tatty volumes on the shelf at Claremont were deleted last week. Some volumes hadn’t been checked out in more than ten years. We didn’t have them all anyway. (The Central branch still has copies!) The anonymous author at Wikipedia is more forgiving than Taleb: “Given the massive undertaking in creating these 11 volumes over 50 years, errors and incompleteness have occurred; yet for an attempt as large in breadth of time and scope as this, there are no similar works to compare.” The series weighs in at more than two million words and nearly 10,000 pages.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

Okay. You convinced me. I've put the book on hold at the library.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I'm not to the point I'd recommend the book enthusiastically. It's a bit of a tease, frankly. Taleb isn't as brilliant as he thinks he is. He may, however, be sufficiently brilliant.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

Mostly I've been reading manga and graphic novels. Even if Taleb isn't brilliant he sounds smart enough to keep me interested while I'm commuting to work on the bus.