The letters you are now reading came down to us, by way of Greek and Phoenician, from a Canaanite source probably developed in the Sinai between 1700 and 1500 B.C. Along with Chinese characters, which also appeared, curiously enough, around 1700 B.C., the proto-alphabet is ancestor to all living scripts, from Cyrillic to Persian to Armenian—this according to Johanna Drucker, whose mesmerizing book begins with a summary of origins as they are currently understood, and proceeds through the many accounts, both magisterial and loony, that humanity has given of its letters.

Or are they God’s? Across the religious spectrum and into the nineteenth century, writing was generally assumed to be of divine provenance; Ganesh even snapped off one of his tusks to use as an ur-pen. To the Kabbalists, the Hebrew alphabet comprised the very stuff by which God brought—or,...


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