The Alphabet Versus The Goddess (Leonard Shlain)

The community center in the heart of old Greenbelt is a converted Depression-Era elementary school. Its austere block construction is relieved by bas-reliefs representing the preamble of our Constitution. Where once wee lads and lasses had gathered to learn their ABCs and play in the gym, older folks now gather to reminisce, middle-aged men attempt to find glory on the basketball court, and artists struggle to throw pots and fix photographs.

Last week, I wandered down to the community center. I walked down a hall to put some distance between me and the throbbing aerobercise music. I peeked into windows to see what was going on, and I saw my imaginary friend Bertie. Without thinking, I threw open the door.

"Bertie!" I said. I was very surprised to see Bertie, you understand, because Bertie usually appears to me in restaurants (where he can mooch half my dinner). But here sat Bertie, surrounded by young people at a round table. I recognized them as children from our super block. There were Prasad and the twins. Of course, that kid whose name I can never remember (Alfie?) was there, too. "What in heaven's name is going on?" I went on.

"Spontaneous writing," he replied. The kids greeted me with their usual level of enthusiasm, and I sat down to join them. Bertie continued, "We meet once a week to improve our literacy skills. We pick a starting phrase, write for half an hour, then share our work."

"Sounds like Toastmasters for Authors," I said. "What got you interested in the literacy of Greenbelt's fine youth?"

"I read this book," he said. He handed over a copy of The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. He tapped the cover. "This guy says that the change from an image-based society to a literate one caused all sorts of upheaval. After the printing press was introduced to Europe, for example, literacy rates went up and the Protestant Revolution occurred."

"You want to bring back those heady days of witch burning and heretic hunting?" I asked.

"Sure, there were small bumps in the road to enlightenment, but look at the power he accrued by using the written word to his advantage."

"Gutenberg?"

"No, I mean Luther. He had (still has) millions of followers. He exerted enormous influence over the shape of the lives of thousands of Europeans."

"And he could sing, too," I said.

"What?"

"Never mind," I said. "Prasad, what do you think of this megalomaniac's ravings?"

"Oh," Prasad looked up from his paper. "I read that book, too. That's why tonight I am writing a letter to my mother."

"That sounds like a nice thing to do," I told him. "Why did the book make you do that?"

"Well, the author explains pretty clearly that as we evolved into our current forms, our heads had to get bigger to contain our enlarged brains. In the process, the female form could only change so much, and childbirth became for humans a very painful and often fatal process."

"So, you're writing your mother to apologize for being such a genius?" I said. I nodded. "Yep, I'm sure it was very painful for her."

"You don't know the half of it," blurted out Billy (or is it Charlie?) He waggled his composition notebook at me. "Any time alphabetic texts supersede image-driven cultures, women suffer. Linear type drives us to left-brain thinking. We have to put a stop to it!"

"So what are you writing?" I asked.

"I am writing a letter to the Washington Literacy Council calling for them to cease and desist this misogynistic practice. Literacy is simply another tool of the Man."

"Long live the revolution," I said. "And what language are you using for the letter?"

"English, why?" But he was suddenly crestfallen as he looked down at his neatly crafted lines of text. "Dang. The Man has won again."

"They're not following instructions," came the stereophonic tattling from the twins. "We were supposed to all use the same first line for our writing."

Donny rolled his eyes. Prasad adjusted his glasses.

"Technically," he said. "They're right."

"What was the starting phrase for tonight?" I asked.

"Oh, something boring," said Ernie. "like - 'The community center in the heart of old Greenbelt...'"

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