May 30, 2021

by Laurence de Looze.
University of Toronto Press, 2016
(i-xiii, 50 pages of plates, 218 pages)

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Quote = “The word 'cosmos' of the title is an ancient Greek word for “basic unit,” as in letter, not the whole universe.” by David Wineberg, book critic.

Quote = “Writing exists only in a civilization and a civilization cannot exist without writing” by I. J. Gelb, in the book, A Study of Writing. (ix)

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PREFACE (ix-xiii = 25 pages)

Quote = “Writing exists only in a civilization and a civilization cannot exist without writing” by I. J. Gelb, in the book, A Study of Writing. (ix)

note = “When I began work on this book..., I envisioned a book on Renaissance attitudes regarding the alphabet and how they influenced the reception of the New World... In fact, I saw the challenge and incomprehensibility of the New World as a catalyst for major changes in European culture...I still hold this view. But this book, like many book projects, came to take on a life of its own, and bit by bit the much larger question took over. The issue is how something as simple and elemental as the alphabet shaped the way Western culture conceived of the world, and has done so for thousands of years! The project expanded.” (ix-x)

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ILLUSTRATIONS (xv-xxviii = 52 pages)


The world made Alphabet, the Alphabet made world (11-18)

note = The analogy between “world and letter” subtends this book. Later this analogy comprehends both antiquity’s view of the alphabet as referring to the elements [Greek “stoicheia” & Latin “elementa”]

note = use paragraph about middle ages understanding of relation between the letter and space regarding Christian symbolism (11)

note = Making a terrain speak alphabetic letters through architecture in 20th century (15-16)

note = = Alphabetic letters on classroom blackboard as a key part of civic education: basic literacy (16-17)

note = See the description of letters as having a body and feet and shoulders (17)


note = Likely that alphabetic writing was first developed around 1500 BC. (20)

note = Use lots of ideas from about the first alphabets and start of Phoenician linear letters, which were formed of lines in modern day Lebanon (20-21)

note = Alphabets augmented the cuneiform wedges that were first invented in Uruk in Babylonia (20)


note = “The Greek alphabet was derived from the Phoenician one, which has made the Phoenician alphabet the fount for Western letters. Sometime between the 12th and the 8th century BC, the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to suit their language,, creating an alphabet of 24 letters in which in general each letter represented a phoneme or minimal unit of sound. By putting together the letters in different combinations, as the Phoenicians had done with their own alphabet, the Greeks could represent the sounds of their words. They made some modifications in terms of letter forms and distribution since they had some sounds that Greek did not have, they could redeploy some letters.” (21)

note = “The most notable change the Greeks made was to redistribute certain letters in order to represent vowels, departing from the Semitic alphabets that, down to our day, represent only consonants.” (21)

note = “Interestingly, it seems that the Greeks wrote down their greatest narratives almost as soon as they had the alphabet. At some point during the 8th and 7th centuries BC the most famous works of Greek culture of the time were committed to writing, especially the two great epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey.” (21-22)

note = “What matters most is the obvious realization that the Greek alphabet could be used not just to record but also to polish, edit, and reproduce the products of the human imagination.” (22)

note = Use next few sentences including bottom of page (22)

note = “Literacy would begin to assert itself as a powerful tool; to be able to read the alphabetic text was to have a measure of social dominion. Alphabetic letters were becoming agents of social power.

note = Greek letters were called stoicheia, which was also the Greek word for the elemental particles or elements that made up the cosmos (23)

note = Use great text in two paragraphs at bottom of page relating letters to atoms in cosmos (23)


4) CHRISTIAN LETTERS — The Middle Ages (49-66)



7) LOGICAL LETTERS — The Alphabet in the Age of Reason (102-117)




NOTES (179-194)

WORKS CITED (195-207)


INDEX (211-218)

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    Alphabet (grammata)
    Alphabet, definition of (179 nl, 2, and globalization 162, 163-164)
    Alphabet and google (162)
    Phonetic (123)
    Superiority of alphabet = (10, 77-78, 85-86)
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR = Laurence de Looze is a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University of Western Ontario.

SUMMARY = Beginning with the Ancient Greeks, the book traces the use of alphabetic letters and their significance from Plato to postmodernism, offering a fascinating tour through Western history.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = From our first ABCs to the Book of Revelation’s statement that Jesus is “the Alpha and Omega,” we see the world through our letters. More than just a way of writing, the alphabet is a powerful concept that has shaped Western civilization and our daily lives. The book probes that influence of the alphabet and how it has served as a lens through which we conceptualize the world and how the world (and sometimes the whole cosmos) has been perceived as a kind of alphabet itself.

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[1] A sharp and entertaining examination of how languages, letterforms, orthography, and writing tools have reflected our hidden obsession with the alphabet, The book is illustrated with copious historic examples of the visual and linguistic phenomena. Read it, and you will never look at the alphabet the same way again. – Paul T Vogel - Midwest Book Review.

[2] The Letter and the Cosmos is a groundbreaking and enjoyable read about the role played by the alphabet in Western culture. Laurence de Looze’s remarkable ability to synthesize and explain, with clarity and elegance, complex situations and ideas makes the reader wonder why it has not been addressed before. The considerable challenge of encompassing centuries of Western culture has been met with much grace and marks an important contribution to the field. – Madeline Jeay, Department of French, McMaster University.

[3] This study is a synthesis of erudition and curiosity that manages to capture the reader’s interest with its lucid and straightforward style. Never before has the subject, on how the alphabet conditions perception in Western culture, been addressed with such scope. – Laura Kendrick, Institut d'Etudes Culturelles et Internationales, Université de Versailles / Paris-Saclay.

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[1] Would the cosmos without an alphabet still be the "cosmos"? – by M. A. Gateso = A thought provoking book about the process of articulating thought. Instead of reading it straight through, I would have benefitted from a slow read, letting each chapter sink into my awareness.

[2] Letters and history. Letters as shapes that shaped the world. Letters and religion. And power. And secularism. Letters as art not meant to have meaning other than as art. So much detail went into the first half of the book. I wanted more to be written about the present day, more about letters' possible ongoing evolution in the days and years ahead. I felt confronted by so much that I had never considered before. And that is the mark of an excellent book.

[3] What is in a letter -- David Wineberg = The alphabet makes an interesting topic. Its scope can be far greater than you might imagine. It can encompass cryptography, spelling, social rules, conspiracy theories, and how a society sees itself. It lends itself to art and philosophy. The book touches on all of them. It goes back in history, following the firming up of alphabets from the Phoenicians and Mesopotamians to the Greeks and Romans. It explores decoration and fonts but it is more of a survey than anything transforming.

It is a collection of facts and anecdotes that does not build. That’s unfortunate, because the book begins with a story de Looze experienced with a Japanese student, who didn’t recognize a possible letter D in a photo of a water wheel — because she was Japanese. Her worldview was different. I was hoping there would be all kinds of insight into how the views of different societies are shaped by their alphabets: and how they differ from us because of their alphabets.

When the book gets to the 20th century, it turns to linguistics and the arguments over the significance of sounds and phonemes. Sounds are represented in the same alphabet differently of course, and it has long been controversial. There is a lot on rationalizing French spelling, and a lot on Oulipo, a largely French artistic movement that tortured words for fun and art. Examples are paragraphs that do not contain the letter e, or paragraphs whose only vowel is e. Letter suppression turns out to be a game about as old as alphabets.

[4] A remarkable history of letters and their significance in European history – by Scott Fosteron = Meticulously researched and beautifully written, full of facts and stories you might have forgotten or otherwise never known. A history of the medium through which European thought has been expressed from antiquity to the present and the evolution of that thought and alphabetic imagery. Stories of practical developments in the presentation of letters that have lasted for decades, centuries and millennia, and impractical ideas for reform that went nowhere. An entertaining but demanding read from a scholar with the same characteristics.

[5] Letter and the Cosmos by Clare O'Bearaon = This is an interesting and fact-filled book about books, letters, art and writing. It explains how the alphabet evolved, how it has been unchanged since the Roman days except by adding a U, and how the Mayans evolved their own pictograms.

I found some of it very well pieced together and other parts seemed to give too much depth to aspects. The illustrated medieval manuscripts are a good example of lettering in art but we also see letters in architecture, jewelry and motifs. From early Greek tablets made to tally goods, to proper lettering to carry a story, on through Greek scrolls, it is plain we have a lot for which to thank the Classical civilizations. Scribing, printing, typing and newsprint followed.

I think the only examples the author misses of letter usage, are branding cattle, and Muslim artwork — where calligraphy of a name or initial letter is used to represent a person and illustrated and colored to show how the artist wishes to represent that person. Those who love books or writing will find endless fun facts and those who enjoy trivia can dive in and enjoy the information.

[6] The Alphabet as joy by David A. Novak. = I have long been a collector of Alphabet books. Not only books on Typography, but books that reveal the imaginative aspects of what the alphabet can conjure such as David Hockney's Alphabet. This book gives scholarly ballast to my imagination. I am grateful to the author for assembling so many new sources and for organizing his fresh material in such a careful manner. He never sacrifices wit and combines it with a deep knowledge of his subject.


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