The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization - Martin Puchner

Staff Pick

As the general editor of several Norton Anthologies and a pioneering Harvard MOOC professor, Martin Puchner practices both traditional and evolving ways of teaching literature. His interests in the past and future of writing are vividly presented in his wide-ranging and breezy The Written World (Random House, $32). While Puchner discusses canonical texts such as Gilgamesh and Don Quixote, this isn’t the usual “greatest hits” survey of world literature. Broadly defining foundational texts as those that “change the way we see the world and the way we act upon it,” Puchner shows how writing as varied as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and Soviet samizdat have been tantamount to creation stories (while Walcott’s post-colonial epic Omeros really is a creation story), allowing us to read the world in new ways.  Often, these new narratives have coincided with new technologies, and Puchner is fascinating on the development of the physical means of transmitting literature, from the first scrolls and tablets to papyrus and parchment and on to paper, the codex, the printing press, and digital platforms—which in turn have reinvented scrolling and tablets. Puchner has a keen eye for historical patterns and ironies, and he has packed his larger themes with many gems. Alexander the Great conquered the world with a copy of Homer’s Iliad at his side—annotated by Aristotle. The Mayans, in a final desperate effort to save their language, recorded their culture’s sacred texts in the Popol Vuh—using the Roman alphabet.  In the highly formal Japanese court immortalized in The Tale of Genji, people exchanged poems as routinely as we now send emails. And what will emerge as the defining literary genre of the digital age? Puchner has enthusiastically given us the beginning and middle of literature’s ongoing story.

The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization By Martin Puchner Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812998931
Availability: Special Order—Subject to Availability
Published: Random House - October 24th, 2017