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Issue 09 – Lent 2022

The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

Some musings on paperwork.


Some of the oldest surviving examples of the written word involve record-keeping. Cuneiform, the script of the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia, later adapted to other other languages (Akkadian, Hittite, Hurrian, Luwian, and others), had its roots in the Sumerian pictograph system: a method for visually depicting commodities, and later recording numbers, before it evolved and expanded to express the fullness of a human language. What could more quickly make ancient peoples familiar to us than the knowledge that they, too, made grocery lists, to-do lists, and kept receipts for their purchases? Even in the reign of Utu-hengal, the great man, King of Uruk, King of the four quarters of the world, ordinary people were writing reminders to help with their trips to the ancient Sumerian equivalent of K-Mart. (For a trip to the last actual K-Mart store, see Colman Rowan’s article.)

Not only death and taxes, then, but also paperwork must be numbered as one of life’s certainties. Charles Lamb, employed for many years at a counting-house of the East India Company, became so oppressed by the paperwork and records he pored over by day that at night he would “awake with terrors of imaginary false entries, errors in my accounts,” and felt “grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul.” For him, the record-books of life, the secondary literature of real existence, had become life itself. Melville’s Bartleby, the law-office copyist, decides to wither and die rather than live such a life. (Samuel Sweeney investigates the conflict between what is written and what is real in journalism in the Middle East.)

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