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The Written World
Cover of The Written World
The Written World
The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, and Civilization
The story of literature in sixteen acts—from Homer to Harry Potter, including The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote, The Communist Manifesto, and how they shaped world history
In this groundbreaking book, Martin Puchner leads us on a remarkable journey through time and around the globe to reveal the how stories and literature have created the world we have today. Through sixteen foundational texts selected from more than four thousand years of world literature, he shows us how writing has inspired the rise and fall of empires and nations, the spark of philosophical and political ideas, and the birth of religious beliefs.
We meet Murasaki, a lady from eleventh-century Japan who wrote the first novel, The Tale of Genji, and follow the adventures of Miguel de Cervantes as he battles pirates, both seafaring and literary. We watch Goethe discover world literature in Sicily, and follow the rise in influence of The Communist Manifesto. Puchner takes us to Troy, Pergamum, and China, speaks with Nobel laureates Derek Walcott in the Caribbean and Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, and introduces us to the wordsmiths of the oral epic Sunjata in West Africa. This delightful narrative also chronicles the inventions—writing technologies, the printing press, the book itself—that have shaped people, commerce, and history. In a book that Elaine Scarry has praised as “unique and spellbinding,” Puchner shows how literature turned our planet into a written world.
Praise for The Written World
“It’s with exhilaration . . . that one hails Martin Puchner’s book, which asserts not merely the importance of literature but its all-importance. . . . Storytelling is as human as breathing.”The New York Times Book Review
“Puchner has a keen eye for the ironies of history. . . . His ideal is ‘world literature,’ a phrase he borrows from Goethe. . . . The breathtaking scope and infectious enthusiasm of this book are a tribute to that ideal.”The Sunday Times (U.K.) 
“Enthralling . . . Perfect reading for a long chilly night . . . [Puchner] brings these works and their origins to vivid life.”—BookPage
“Well worth a read, to find out how come we read.”—Margaret Atwood, via Twitter
The story of literature in sixteen acts—from Homer to Harry Potter, including The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote, The Communist Manifesto, and how they shaped world history
In this groundbreaking book, Martin Puchner leads us on a remarkable journey through time and around the globe to reveal the how stories and literature have created the world we have today. Through sixteen foundational texts selected from more than four thousand years of world literature, he shows us how writing has inspired the rise and fall of empires and nations, the spark of philosophical and political ideas, and the birth of religious beliefs.
We meet Murasaki, a lady from eleventh-century Japan who wrote the first novel, The Tale of Genji, and follow the adventures of Miguel de Cervantes as he battles pirates, both seafaring and literary. We watch Goethe discover world literature in Sicily, and follow the rise in influence of The Communist Manifesto. Puchner takes us to Troy, Pergamum, and China, speaks with Nobel laureates Derek Walcott in the Caribbean and Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, and introduces us to the wordsmiths of the oral epic Sunjata in West Africa. This delightful narrative also chronicles the inventions—writing technologies, the printing press, the book itself—that have shaped people, commerce, and history. In a book that Elaine Scarry has praised as “unique and spellbinding,” Puchner shows how literature turned our planet into a written world.
Praise for The Written World
“It’s with exhilaration . . . that one hails Martin Puchner’s book, which asserts not merely the importance of literature but its all-importance. . . . Storytelling is as human as breathing.”The New York Times Book Review
“Puchner has a keen eye for the ironies of history. . . . His ideal is ‘world literature,’ a phrase he borrows from Goethe. . . . The breathtaking scope and infectious enthusiasm of this book are a tribute to that ideal.”The Sunday Times (U.K.) 
“Enthralling . . . Perfect reading for a long chilly night . . . [Puchner] brings these works and their origins to vivid life.”—BookPage
“Well worth a read, to find out how come we read.”—Margaret Atwood, via Twitter
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  • From the book chapter 1

    Alexander's Pillow Book

    336 b.c.e.—­Macedonia

    Alexander of Macedonia is called the Great because he managed to unify the proud Greek city-­states, conquer every kingdom between Greece and Egypt, defeat the mighty Persian army, and create an empire that stretched all the way to India—­in less than thirteen years. People have wondered ever since how a ruler from a minor Greek kingdom could accomplish such a feat. But there was always a second question, more intriguing to me, which was why Alexander wanted to conquer Asia in the first place.

    In contemplating this question, I found myself focusing on three objects that Alexander carried with him throughout his military campaign and that he put under his pillow every night, three objects that summed up the way he saw his campaign. The first was a dagger. Next to his dagger, Alexander kept a box. And inside the box, he placed the most precious of the three objects: a copy of his favorite text, the Iliad.

    How did Alexander come by these three objects, and what did they mean to him?

    Alexander slept on a dagger because he wanted to escape his father's fate of being assassinated. The box he had seized from Darius, his Persian opponent. And the Iliad he had brought to Asia because it was the story through which he saw his campaign and life, a foundational text that captured the mind of a prince who would go on to conquer the world.

    Homer's epic had been a foundational text for the Greeks for generations. For Alexander, it acquired the status of an almost sacred text, which is why he carried it with him on his campaign. It is what texts, especially foundational ones, do: They change the way we see the world and also the way we act upon it. This was certainly the case with Alexander. He was induced not only to read and study this text, but also to reenact it. Alexander, the reader, put himself into the story, viewing his own life and trajectory in the light of Homer's Achilles. Alexander the Great is well known as a larger-­than-­life king. It turns out that he was also a larger-­than-­life reader.

    A Young Achilles

    Alexander learned the lesson of the dagger while still a prince, at a turning point in his life. His father, King Philip II of Macedonia, was marrying off a daughter, and no one could afford to decline his invitation. Emissaries from the Greek city-­states would have been sent, along with visitors from recently conquered lands in Thrace, where the Danube met the Black Sea. Perhaps even some Persians were in the crowd, attracted by King Philip's military successes. Alexander's father stood on the eve of a major assault on Asia Minor, striking fear in the heart of Darius III, king of Persia. The mood in the old Macedonian capital, Aegae, was exuberant, because King Philip was famous for throwing lavish parties. Everyone had assembled in the great theater, eager for the proceedings to begin.

    Alexander must have watched the preparations with ambivalence. He had been groomed to be his father's successor from an early age, with forced marches and training in the martial arts. He had become a famous horseman, astonishing his father by breaking an unmanageable horse when he was in his early teens. King Philip had also seen to Alexander's education in public speaking and had made sure that his son would learn proper Greek in addition to the mountain dialect spoken in Macedonia. (Throughout his life, Alexander would revert back to the Macedonian dialect when enraged.) But now it seemed that Philip, who had invested so much in Alexander, might alter his plans for succession. He was marrying his daughter to his...
About the Author-
  • Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His prizewinning books cover subjects from philosophy to the arts, and his bestselling six-volume Norton Anthology of World Literature and his HarvardX MOOC (massive open online course) have brought four thousand years of literature to students across the globe. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    May 22, 2017
    In this timely chronicle, Puchner, a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard University, tells the story both of the ideas that shaped civilization and the equally crucial technology that transmitted and preserved those ideas. Literature here means more than just fiction: it encompasses publication platforms, such as newspapers, and various formats of political speech, such as the manifesto and the pamphlet, as well as poetry and foundational religious texts. Puchner sweeps from the ancient civilizations that produced The Epic of Gilgamesh to contemporary fascination with the invented world of Harry Potter, with stops along the way in classical Greece, the insular court of 11th-century Japan, 16th-century Mayan culture, the turmoil of 19th-century Europe, and the violent repression of 20th-century totalitarian regimes, among other settings. The technological revolutions he explores include the rise of paper, the book’s ascendancy over the scroll, and the development of printing from early wood blocks to the extraordinary process perfected by Gutenberg. Finally, he comes to the digital present, leaving the reader curious to see the next, still-to-be-written chapter of the written word. By providing snapshots of key moments in the written word’s evolution, Puchner creates a gripping intellectual odyssey. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim & Williams.

  • Library Journal

    June 15, 2017

    Byron and Anita Wein Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, Puchner doesn't just tell us about the important works of literature that have shaped civilization over 4,000 years, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Don Quixote to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. He tells us about the people whose personal persuasions led them to create those works. It's literature not as mirror, then, but as potent force.

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    September 15, 2017
    The world is shaped by books, and human history by texts sacred and profane: so this thoughtful treatise by the general editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature."Literature isn't just for book lovers," writes Puchner (English and Comparative Literature/Harvard Univ.; The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy, 2010, etc.), after opening with a thesis that isn't quite novel but bears thinking about nonetheless: we gain much of our sense of history, morality, ethics, and religion through works of the imagination. Thus it's no surprise that the astronauts who landed on the moon in 1969 couched their expressions of wonder in the words of the Bible or that Alexander the Great patterned his wars against the backdrop of the Homeric epics ("he wanted to meet Darius in a traditional battle and defeat him in single combat, the way Achilles had met and defeated Hector"). Sometimes, Puchner wanders into gods-for-clods territory, and his take is a little old-fashioned in its mistrust of technology and hints of disdain for mass culture of the Harry Potter variety; still, it's all to the greater good of recognizing the significance of literature and its study. The book provides a nice collection of oddments of the bibliophilic nature, fitting neatly alongside works by Nicholas Basbanes and Alberto Manguel: it's illuminating to know that the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal was once an accountant and "realized that his store of knowledge was useful only if it was organized," giving birth to the world's first known scheme of library classification; it's also well to recognize that we know so much more about the Heian court of medieval Japan than about almost any other government of the time thanks to The Tale of Genji. In mounting a learned and, yes, literate defense for literature as an instrument of mind and memory, Puchner also argues against literary fundamentalism, allowing texts to be seen as living things and allowing "readers of each generation to make these texts their own." A lucid entertainment for the humanists in the audience.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, and Civilization
Martin Puchner
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