Monday, January 22, 2018

The Written World: How Literature Shaped Civilization by Martin Puchner: A review

In the beginning was the word and the word created everything that came after. Today we live in The Written World, a civilization shaped by literature.

In this fascinating book, Martin Puchner takes us on a trip through time to show us how the world that we know today was brought into being by story-tellers. The stories that they told were first shared through an oral tradition, handed down from one poet/singer, such as Homer, to another. The need to preserve the stories and pass them on helped lead to a system of writing and finally to methods of printing and distributing those printed texts. Inexorably, step by step, the first texts printed with wooden blocks have led us to digital "printing" and the Kindle on which I read this book. More than four thousand years of world literature have brought us to this.

Puchner explores the ways in which literature has created our modern civilization by introducing us to the foundational texts and the visionaries that have been central to that creative force. Through sixteen chapters, he details the stories of sixteen of these foundational works.

The beginning was more than four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia with the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was printed in cuneiform on clay tablets and was discovered in the mid 19th century by Austen Henry Layard near what was thought to be the site of the ancient city of Nineveh and is today the city of Mosul, Iraq. It told the story of the king Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu who became his friend. At the center of the story was the tale of Utnapishtim, the survivor of a great flood which covered the earth. This was the antecedent and precursor of all other great flood stories. 

From this first great epic, Puchner moves on to Ezra's Hebrew Bible to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and to the teachings of the Buddha, of Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus, all of whose teachings were collected and written down by others and all of whom helped to shape the societies in which they lived.

Finally, we get to the first great novel in world literature, The Tale of Gengi, which was written by a Japanese woman known as Murasaki, and from there to the story of Scheherazade and her One Thousand and One Nights.  

I was particularly interested in Puchner's exploration of literature in the New World, specifically that of the Maya. It is in many ways a tragic story. So much of Mayan literature was lost to destruction by the Spanish conquerors and most particularly by Diego de Landa who burned many of the codexes. But it is also a story of the courage and determination of the Maya who managed to hide and save some of their heritage, including their own great foundational text, the Popul Vuh

We also meet the creator of the modern novel form, Miguel Cervantes, and learn that he may have been the first victim of intellectual property theft when literary pirates published a fake sequel to Don Quixote. Cervantes engaged in a long and costly fight to protect his creation.

There is also the compelling story of an epic tale of West Africa called Sunjata. Like Homer's Iliad, it was preserved in an oral tradition, possibly for centuries, before it was finally written down. 

Puchner moves us swiftly on through world literature from Benjamin Franklin to Goethe to the Communist Manifesto and even to the present time. He visits Derek Walcott, a few years before his death, and discusses his great epic, Omeros, a foundational text for the Caribbean.

And finally, he discusses J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories and shows how she, too, used the form of the foundational text in creating these stories.

This summary barely scratches the surface. I found this book completely captivating. Puchner keeps the narrative moving with chronicles of the inventions which accompanied each advance in literature, as well as the philosophical, political, and religious ideas that sprang from that literature. For the dedicated reader, this book goes far toward explaining why we read and why we cannot imagine a world without books.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

6 comments:

  1. I love books like this! I must check it out and soon.

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    1. I think you will find it as absorbing as I did.

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  2. How didactic and even epic this book seems in detailing the history of literature from its humbling beginnings in the oral tradition until present day. It seems to have been written for you. ;-)

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    1. Indeed it was fascinating. Possibly my favorite book of the month.

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