John Man is good at a certain kind of popular history book, as I’ve noted before. There are often elements of travelogue, and it’s usually a very easy read, with quite short chapters and not too many long quotations from sources or anything like that. It’s not the most rigorous scholarship in the world, but it’s a good way to get a handle on a subject and get an initial idea of whether you’re interested in reading more. Sometimes there are interesting titbits about newer scholarship that might be a bit more controversial — you catch the drift.
Alpha Beta, then, is Man’s take on the alphabet. Other people have mentioned expecting that he’d just discuss each letter in turn and where we picked it up from, but Man is somewhat more ambitious: he’s after the origin of the Roman alphabet as we know it, and more generally the origin of writing as a form of expression. He has some very interesting points, including about Korea’s hyper-rational alphabet that is designed to be ideal for writing down the language. (Though I do wonder if that will stick after a few centuries of use and language change.)
He has a whole bit on the influence of the alphabet on monotheism that made surprisingly little impact on me and I only remembered when checking over the Amazon reviews to refresh my mind to write this — although actually, I think what he wrote was more the other way round, that monotheism had an impact on the emergence of the alphabet, because he wrote about how useful it can be for an emerging social group to adopt an alphabet. The Mongols (a pet topic of his, clearly, since he’s written books on Genghis and Kublai Khan, etc) were also an example in that context.
Overall, it’s an interesting if not exactly exhaustive read.