The written sign is the linchpin of western civilization, the chief vehicle for

the transmission of knowledge across time and space. Although rooted in

an oral epic tradition, ancient societies from Babylonia to Rome assiduously

transcribed and preserved foundational texts. The Hebrew Bible presented

divine enunciation and human transcription of Torah as nearly simulta-

neous. The Jewish Oral Law of late antiquity metamorphosed into a massive

corpus of written exegetical and legal texts, just as primitive Christianity’s

logocentrism (‘‘In the beginning was the [spoken] Word,’’ says the Gospel of John) engendered the medieval monastery, whose center was the scriptorium.

In the early modern period, the development of print technology freed the

word from its cloister and made possible the wide dissemination of abstract

thought, which is most effectively expressed in concrete text.1 The nineteenth-

century newspaper further de-sacralized the written word – Hegel remarked

that newspaper reading was the modern substitute for daily prayers – and

democratized it. But from the epoch of the Bible to the era of the boulevard

press, the written word remained the common vehicle for signification and communication.