The story of how literature shaped world history, in sixteen acts—from Alexander the Great and the Iliad to Don Quixote and Harry Potter
In this groundbreaking book, Martin Puchner leads us on a remarkable journey through time and around the globe to reveal the powerful role stories and literature have played in creating the world we have today. Puchner introduces us to numerous visionaries as he explores sixteen foundational texts selected from more than four thousand years of world literature and reveals 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. Indeed, literature has touched the lives of generations and changed the course of history.
At the heart of this book are works, some long-lost and rediscovered, that have shaped civilization: the first written masterpiece, the Epic of Gilgamesh; Ezra’s Hebrew Bible; the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus; and the first great novel in world literature, The Tale of Genji, written by a Japanese woman known as Murasaki. Visiting Baghdad, Puchner tells of Scheherazade and the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, and in the Americas we watch the astonishing survival of the Maya epic Popol Vuh. Cervantes, who invented the modern novel, battles pirates both real (when he is taken prisoner) and literary (when a fake sequel to Don Quixote is published). We learn of Benjamin Franklin’s pioneering work as a media entrepreneur, watch Goethe discover world literature in Sicily, and follow the rise in influence of The Communist Manifesto. We visit Troy, Pergamum, and China, and we speak with Nobel laureates Derek Walcott in the Caribbean and Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, as well as the wordsmiths of the oral epic Sunjata in West Africa.
Throughout The Written World, Puchner’s delightful narrative also chronicles the inventions—writing technologies, the printing press, the book itself—that have shaped religion, politics, commerce, people, 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.
“Well worth a read, to find out how come we read.”—Margaret Atwood, via Twitter
“A gripping intellectual odyssey.”—Publishers Weekly
“An expansive, exuberant survey of the central importance of literature in human culture but also a great adventure story.”—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve
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If you love literature (and if you are reading this column you probably do), then you are likely to find Martin Puchner’s The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization enthralling. . . . Puchner is a generous, natural teacher who brings these works and their origins to vivid life. . . . Education and enthusiasm combine seamlessly in Puchner’s sweeping narrative, which comprises history, biography, technology and ideas. And while it is a cliché to say he brings literature to life, he does exactly that, connecting the dots of civilization in new and interesting ways. The Written World is perfect reading for a long chilly night, and it will leave you thinking in new ways about the wondrous thing called literature that, perhaps, we sometimes take for granted.