Book Review: The Written World by Martin Puchner

Cover art of the Written World by Martin Puchner


Let There Be Lit


What do the actions of the Apollo 8 astronauts have to do with the influence of literature on human civilization? Well, according to Martin Puchner the author of the new reference work The Written World - How Literature Shaped Civilization, the first observers of the phenomenon called Earthrise responded in such a way to support his thesis purported therein. What did they do? They read from the Book of Genesis in the Bible: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth and the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep..." thus endorsing the influence of foundational texts, in this case the Old Testament, on the advancement of humanity.

Puchner, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard, guides the reader through a chronological tour of the history of the written word. From the Epic of Gilgamesh-- the first known recorded literary narrative, which was discovered in the mid 19th century by Austen Henry Layard near what is today Mosul, Iraq and what is thought to be the approximate location of the ancient biblical city of Ninevah and which was written in Cuneiform on clay tablets-- through the Homeric epics, Ezra's Bible, Don Quixote, to the poetry of Derek Walcott and the fantasies of J.K. Rowling and G.R.R. Martin, the author postulates the profound effect of literature on our civilization writ large.

The Macedonian, Alexander the Great cherished works like the Illiad and The Odyssey, spreading their influence as well as the Greek language, throughout Egypt and the Levant. He built the great Library at Alexandria as a testament to the proliferation all things Greek. Before him, The Mesopotamian king, Ashurbanipal (circa 668 B.C.E.), had been trained as a scribe and was himself responsible for many reproductions of the aforementioned Epic of Gilgamesh, possibly even the one discovered by Layard. The epic contains the archetype of the tale of the great flood later included in the Old Testament, another foundational text, which was to be recorded by a Judean named Ezra. Ezra was also a scribe, one who's people had been exiled from Jerusalem. He is credited with elevating the foundational text of what became known as the Holy Bible to a sacred document, "itself an object of worship".


Puchner goes on to convince the reader of the power of a good story. Examples such as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, possibly the first anthology of tales, lend credence to his thesis. He explains how philosophical mentors like Confucius, Socrates or Jesus spread their teachings orally, never recording any of their basic tenets held so dear by their followers; and how the disciples of these powerful figures used writing to propagate their message.

He elaborates on the history of printing; how automated type was integral to the advancement of influential ideas leading to major revolutionary movements throughout history. Think Common Sense or The Communist Manifesto. He enlightens us to lesser known foundational texts such as: The Popol Vuh of the Mayan, which was suppressed and burned by the Spanish Conquistadors in the Great Auto-Da-Fe of 1562; The Epic of Sunjata, literature germinating from Mali that has survived exclusively in the oral medium, essentially a performance, never having been written down until very recently; and the epic poem Omeros by Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott, a work which aspires to Homeric grandeur about his homeland of St. Lucia.

The Written World is so chock-a-block with fascinating history, it will keep the curious reader riveted till the final pages. It also contains many photos, maps and illustrations as well as a complete compendium of textual notes to supplement one's reading experience. Puchner sets a personal tone by injecting some of his own story of research methodology and enterprising travel that helps the reader identify with the author, warming the work beyond the realm of the textbook. In conclusion, he notes that more people are literate than ever before in history which means that, with blogs, self publishing and the like, more writing is being done by more people. So, In celebration of their conquest, perhaps the first men to reach Mars will choose a reading from the Gospel of you or me.

~ 4.2 Stars