Episode 99: Johanna Drucker

Thursday, February 23, 2023



Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present (University of Chicago Press, 2022)

In our continued thread of extra-literary / page-adjacent topics, I speak to writer, scholar and artist Johanna Drucker about the origins of the alphabet which she wrote about in her latest book, Inventing the Alphabet. We also talk about her history of making artist’s books, visual poetry and gender representation. We talk about the Kanada Koncrete symposium at the University of Ottawa where we met in 2018. We also discuss Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry (Timglaset Editions, 2021).

Johanna explains that Inventing the Alphabet is not a history of the alphabet, but rather a historiography–a history of how we came to know that history, an exhaustive study. There is only one alphabet, which has spread and developed into variants. She tells me about what prompted her interest in the alphabet from a young age and the discovery of a book called the Alphabet of Nature at the UC Berkley library in the stacks. She also mentions her book the Alphabetic Labyrinth: the Letters in History and Imagination published in 1995. We have a great conversation about some of the sources of the book, sometimes very difficult to find and rare.

We discuss the issues surrounding the origins of the alphabet. Physical evidence didn’t surface until the early 19th century. There are lots of political and religious debates about the inscriptions’ interpretations. I ask about the research process. Johanna discusses cabinets of antiquities and coins that are discovered, compendia, tables, copies of inscriptions.

We talk about magical/angel/celestial alphabets. I ask about the connection between the alphabet and mysticism. Chaldean letters are the earliest letters. They had mystical and magical association. She talks about the tradition of putting letterforms on incantation bowls as early as the 3rd century. The letters are considered to have come from the Constellations and seen as the writing of God.

I discuss the connection between ancient alphabetics and asemic writing.

I ask about some examples of the fascinating discoveries of inscriptions, such as the Sarcophagus of Eshmunaza. Johanna mentions more recent discoveries of inscriptions.

I ask about the coda in the book, which discusses digital use of the alphabet.

We discuss the connection between letterpress, visuality and the alphabet in Johanna’s work. She talks about her 1972 book Dark, the Bat Elf, and As No Storm or the Any Port Party which came out later and the tactile wonder of holding letters in your hand. I talk about her work in Judith. Johanna talks about working at the West Coast Print Shop in the 70s and shaming due to gender. Stochastic Poetics came out in 2012 and was her final artist’s book. It’s letterpress without a single straight line.

I ask if she ever invented her own alphabet variation. You’ll have to listen to the episode to find out more.


Inventing the Alphabet took me on a fascinating journey through religion, history, mysticism, archeology and more. Its main thesis is that the alphabet was invented rather than discovered and is continuing to be a vital and important tool of communication. It’s a mammoth book with numerous samples of the alphabet as discovered on coins, vessels, in tunnels and waterways, studied in compendiums, tables and documents and collected over centuries. Inventing the Alphabet made me question the role of the alphabet, how the biases of its researchers led to misconceptions and its use as an ideological tool. To quote from the book, “The alphabet was not created to do the administrative work of a king, to take care of accounting, or to enable monumental inscriptions. It emerged from marginal, modest, small-scale marks and signs.”

I found the work engrossing and wide-ranging with a healthy dose of whimsy, which is also present in Johanna Drucker’s other works, including her artist’s books.  Inventing the Alphabet engages with materiality and takes us on a close-up journey inside the alphabet, including the controversies surrounding its origins.

Thanks to Johanna for being on the show, to Jennifer Pederson for the intro and outro, to Charles Earl for processing and to you for listening to and sharing the episodes each month.

Stay tuned for our March episode, which will be our 100th episode!. another in our extra-literary thread where we discuss page-adjacent aspects of literary, small press and visual poetry subjects. Our next guest is book doctor, Christine McNair, who will talk to us about her job in book conservation as well as book binding and other interesting subjects.

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