Of William James and Alphabetic Writing

On Tuesday afternoon, with a few hours before I had to catch my flight out of Boston, I was able to spend some quality time in Harvard’s Houghton Library with the original (handwritten) manuscript of The Varieties of Religious Experience, a very famous book written by the illustrious American psychologist-philosopher William James (brother, by the way, of the novelist Henry James).

Someday, I plan to publish a short note regarding a particular feature of the book.  (More on that in due course, probably a year or two down the pike.)

In the meantime, though, what astonished me — and not for the first time — was the genius of . . . the alphabet, perhaps the greatest invention of, or the greatest gift ever given to, humanity.

In the case of William James (d. 1910), twenty-six distinct little marks, repeated in varying combinations on paper, conveyed to me with remarkable accuracy and comprehensiveness the thoughts and even the personality of a man who died a hundred and two years ago and whom, obviously, I’ve never met.

That’s remarkable, if you seriously consider it.  It’s astonishing.  A daily miracle, of a sort.

Posted from Las Vegas, Nevada.

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