The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

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The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A superlatively readable book that tells of a seemingly dry slice of history with utmost clarity.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2013
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 9781781251324

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Meet Linear B. It's the name given to an ancient writing system discovered in 1900, and has stuck ever since then. If you need to know more, it's a linear style of writing, and is linked to Linear A. There, that's that cleared up. But it took an awful long time to clear anything more up – while people knew some things about Linear B, and why and how they got to be holding it in their hands, the actual language it contained, and its meaning, was a truly intellectual challenge. It was five whole decades of obscurity, annoyingly secretive archaeologists and more, between Sir Arthur Evans finding Linear B on copious clay tablets on Crete, and its interpretation. In between those two landmarks was an unsung American heroine, and this book is both an incredibly readable guide to everything regarding Linear B, and a study of her contribution.

It didn't take long for Evans and those with an eye to such things to work out that the clay tablets were the civil records of Knossos – a bureaucrat's heaven, recording as it did just a short spell of time while the data were of note. Such archives would only have been temporary, had a disaster not befallen Knossos and fried the clay into permanent, baked tablets. Many people with an eye to ancient languages, code-breaking and more, all tried to get enough information about what was on the thousands of fragments, none with more of a dogged spirit than the untold Alice Kober. She tried to juggle academe and teaching with burning the candles at both ends to crack the secrets of Linear B. There's a case very strongly made here that she was close to doing so – and certainly this book succeeds in its declaration of wanting to redress the balance in the history of the translation. That was finally carried out by a third personality – a language prodigy and architect from the UK.

But this book is not just about the personal histories of those involved. It is a fascinating account of everything you could wish for on this subject, but never feels like being overly detailed. The story is the definitive one not just because of how much is here, but because of how well written it is. It covers every person's back story finely, but also delves into the science, craft, luck and linguistic problems that the translation required. Yet even when arrayed with diagrams, grids and these at times ridiculous-looking letters, the pages are eminently readable and understandable.

So what we have is a flawless example of non-fiction writing. A story that one probably knows little of, if anything, about something that one may never have thought one would care to read about, but told in a fascinating way by the person probably best qualified to tell it. Ms Fox can cover the differences in writing systems around the world, flash to the Rosetta Stone to look at how hieroglyphs were deciphered, and leave us with wonderful cliff-hangers in telling this incredible tale incredibly well. Wonderful.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf covers, among many things, different styles of early writing and what they mean for the brain. The Rosetta Stone by John Ray is a closer look at another archaic language and its rediscovery.

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Buy The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox at

Booklists.jpg The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox is in the Top Ten History Books of 2013.


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