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


Overview - 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.  Read more...


 
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More About The Written World by Martin Puchner
 
 
 
Overview
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, created as scripture; 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

 
Details
  • ISBN-13: 9780812998931
  • ISBN-10: 0812998936
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Publish Date: October 2017
  • Page Count: 448
  • Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds


Related Categories

Books > History > Civilization
Books > Biography & Autobiography > Historical
Books > Literary Criticism > Books & Reading

 
BookPage Reviews

Well Read: Words of the world

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. A Harvard literature professor who also teaches thousands of students around the globe through his popular online course, Puchner here takes on nothing less than a millennia- spanning examination of how key written works have shaped world culture. What could have been a dry survey is anything but—­Puchner is a generous, natural teacher who brings these works and their origins to vivid life.

“Literature isn’t just for book lovers,” Puchner begins. “Ever since it emerged four thousand years ago, it has shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth.” Storytelling, of course, is even older, but Puchner explains that it was only when storytelling intersected with writing that literature was born. Literature, he writes, proved to be a new force that spread ideas with unprecedented alacrity and ease. Puchner explores the evolution of writing technologies—from clay tablets to Twitter—and the preservation of the written word, particularly by early libraries. But what he primarily focuses on are what he calls foundational texts. He sees the story of literature unfolding in four stages. First, there was the writing down of stories that had long been shared orally: “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” “The Iliad,” the Hebrew Bible. Next came the recording of the wisdom of charismatic teachers such as Buddha, Socrates, Jesus and Confucius (done by their disciples, for none of these men left their own written records). The third stage was the emergence of individual authors with distinctive voices, beginning with the first novel by Lady Murasaki in 11th-century Japan. Finally, there came the mass-communication age, ushered in by the printing press, which brought the broad dissemination of wide-ranging, disparate and sometimes culture-shattering ideas from the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Goethe and even J.K. Rowling.

Puchner has penned a fascinating celebration of literature.

Puchner’s entertaining saga of how literature shaped civilization begins with Alexander the Great (before flashing back even further in history), and like that legendary Macedonian, he lays claim to the known world. Eschewing any Western bias, Puchner’s study takes readers from Asia to the postcolonial Caribbean, from Mayan Mexico to a global literary festival in contemporary India. Puchner’s fascinating celebration of literature hesitates to stop in the present as he looks ahead at the transformative, second great explosion of the written word during which we live. He concludes, “What we can say for sure is that the world population has grown even as literacy rates have risen sharply, which means that infinitely more writing is being done by more people, published and read more widely, than ever before.”

Erudition and enthusiasm combine seamlessly in Puchner’s sweeping narrative, which comprises history, biography, technology and ideas. And while it is a cliché to say that 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.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

 
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