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Bookworm: ‘Place for Everything’ covers the invention of writing

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order”

  • By Judith Flanders
  • c. 2020, Basic Books
  • $30, $38 Canada; 321 pages

Where is the cereal shelved? With the other cereal, of course, same aisle as oatmeal and maple syrup, probably middle of the store. Milk is with sour cream, sugar is with flour, and strawberries are over by bananas. From groceries to gadgets, most things in our lives are categorized and as you'll see in "A Place for Everything" by Judith Flanders, that's sometimes as simple as A-B-C.

"A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order" by Judith Flanders.

Long before the invention of the letters you see on this page, humans communicated with symbols. That was easy, but also complicated: a haphazardly-placed symbol might indicate a bird, for instance, but if paired with something else etched near it, it had a different meaning. Not until the Sumerians invented cuneiform did orderly rows and columns became standard for most communication; still, cuneiform was "ideographic" and abstract.

"Writing," says Flanders, "was altogether a complex business" that historians believe was invented just three times: the Chinese used written words as early as 1600 BCE, scholarly Egyptians embraced written words, and so did the Mayans. As for the alphabet itself, it seems to have been a collaboration, invented just once, probably near Egypt. Some three thousand years ago, it spread to Europe.

The alphabet led to the writing of scrolls, then books, both of which were created by hand, meaning that works were copied, reorganized, changed, and adapted then. Books ultimately became popular enough that Ptolemy I demanded one for his library from everyone who traveled through his kingdom. His obsession, The Library of Alexandria, was "probably" one of the first to alphabetically organize the volumes it contained.

As use of alphabetization increased, it wasn't without controversy: clerics demanded that "God" come before everything else, but what if "God" was deus? Others said chronology made more organizing sense. When you remember that spelling might differ between people and nations, and letters may've been changed slightly or added, you can see the mess.

And it lasted until just a little over a century ago ...

For someone like you, a lover of the written word (you haven't stopped reading yet, right?), there's good news: "A Place for Everything" covers nearly everything having to do with the invention of writing, including books, paper, documents, and even furniture.

And yet, at its core, this is a book about organizing one small corner of human evolution, and author Judith Flanders is quick to remind readers of that. Readers who struggle with clutter will be astounded at (and impressed by) the sheer number of items that our ancestors invented and accumulated, which then needed to be sorted – a list that grew along with culture and knowledge. For the curious word-lover, or the fan of ancient history or historically-based timeline writing, that's extraordinarily delightful.

Whether clay tablet, clutch purse, or closet, there are steps for sorting, and there's a constant shuffle and re-working to make things more find-able. "A Place for Everything," this book about alphabetization, tells part of that story in a surprising chronological order. It's up to you to decide where to shelve it.

“Chicago's Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City”

  • By Carl Smith
  • c. 2020, Atlantic Monthly Press
  • $28, $41.95 Canada; 374 pages

You were not to blame. Very clearly, you didn’t do it. You were there, of course, but though everybody seems to be pointing fingers, you honestly had nothing to do with it. It wasn't your fault. And in the new book “Chicago’s Great Fire” by Carl Smith, the cow was innocent, too.

“Chicago's Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City” by Carl Smith.

On Sunday morning, Oct. 8, 1871, Fire Chief Marshall Robert Williams went to bed, exhausted. For months, the weather in his Chicago hometown had been warm and dry with not much rain since mid-summer, and everything was "poised to burn." Williams had just finished a long shift, fighting more than twenty fires caused by mischief, carelessness, or arson, and he had a bad feeling about the night to come.

A few hours later, in a part of town filled with working-class immigrants in small, crowded shacks, Catherine O'Leary finished her chores and joined her husband in bed. She owned a small dairy operation within city limits, and her contribution to her household was important. Catherine arose every morning at four to milk her cows, and she was tired.

The O'Learys fell asleep, but not for long. Around 9 o'clock, neighbor Daniel Sullivan spotted flames in the O'Leary's barn, and he quickly woke the family. Sullivan then sprinted to a fire alarm many blocks away, tripped it, and returned to help.

For some reason, however, the alarm was ignored. Within minutes, sparks leapt from the O'Leary's barn to nearby homes and spread to outbuildings. Dry wood disintegrated, burning sawdust swirled and ignited, and fire raged out of control, an inferno that sent Chicagoans scrambling for green space and waterfront. Carrying their most precious belongings on their backs, the wealthy tried to save their artwork, the poor tried to save their cookpots, officials tried to save important documents, and Chicago burned...

It's almost impossible to read the first half of “Chicago's Great Fire” without feeling your heart pound. Indeed, you can practically hear ominous music beneath author Carl Smith's narrative, and though you know there's a near-literal Phoenix-from-the-ashes rising sooner or later, you also know there's lots of story left.

Part of the appeal of its telling is in the authenticity here, through a wide variety of sources, including the words of Chicagoans of all ages. This comes mostly in quaintly florid Victorian-era prose that's gut-wrenchingly poignant, and wonderful as a storytelling tool. Also: more heart-pounding. More nail-biting.

Once you get past the immediacy of the fire, a clean-up begins in both reality and story. For modern residents and fans alike, but also for lovers of old buildings, the latter half of this book is fascinating in its account of the efforts to re-make Chicago, and to make sure that disasters like this never happen again.

Though you know what happened that night by Lake Michigan – and in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, at the very same time – there are many surprises left inside "Chicago's Great Fire," including a cow that didn't do a thing. And if you miss that story, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Also be sure to check out

"Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy" by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano, a book a more modern-day inferno in Paradise, California; and "A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America's Hurricanes" by Eric Jay Dolin, a book about hurricanes on our shores.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.