"Reading maketh a full man," Francis Bacon declared in 1597, "and writing an exact man." His aphorism, penned a century and a half after Gutenberg's creation of the printing press, expressed the West's revived faith in the awesome power of literacy—to elevate the human mind, to uplift the citizenry, to spur progress. Today, many Americans, awash in memos and junk mail, take the written word for granted. Yet perhaps 27 million of their countrymen are "functionally illiterate." They must strain even to decipher the warning label on a bottle of aspirin. In many other places, reading and writing remain uncommon, the printed word a mystery: Illiteracy afflicts more than 90 per- cent of the people in some Third World countries. Indeed, of mankind's 3,000 spoken languages, only some 78 are written. Here, Walter A. Fairservis traces the development of writing in ancient times; Steven Lagerfeld describes the impact of literacy in the West; and David Harman examines the uneven state of reading and writing in the United States today.