How Martin Puchner penned the story of literature

From Homer to Harry Potter, Puchner’s new book tells the story of literature itself. He tells The National how the next chapter could be the most exciting yet

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: The Apotheosis of Homer' 1827: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) French classical painter. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The Written World: How Literature Shaped History
Martin Puchner

It would be fair to say that Martin Puchner knows a thing or two about world literature. Originally from Germany, he has been teaching and writing about English and comparative literature in the United States for more than 20 years. He was general editor of the monumental six-volume Norton Anthology of World Literature, which packs 4,000 years of literature into 6,000 pages. At Harvard, he runs a successful online course called Masterpieces of World Literature, which sees him exploring foundational texts of different cultures with participants from 160 different countries.

Puchner is in London to promote his latest book, which looks at world literature from a new perspective. The Written World is an informative, relentlessly entertaining account of the development of literature, in particular the way seminal texts and radical technologies have influenced and changed cultures.

Puchner divides the history of literature into four main stages. He starts with the work of groups of scribes – epics, the Hebrew Bible, the Odyssey. From there he moves on to what he terms "master's literature"; texts that are the teachings of charismatic leaders – Buddha, Socrates, Confucius – as written down by their students. This gives way to sections on emerging authors and the early novel, before ending up with the era of mass production and literacy brought about by the widespread use of paper and print.

“Literature has shaped how we view the world,” Puchner tells me. “You have these broad national narratives which we are all part of. They can be national epics, religious texts, political texts or literary texts. Then there is the connection between literature and writing technology. Literary texts remain very closely tied to writing, especially in the ancient and medieval worlds. Every Greek, for example, would learn how to read and write by studying Homer.”

Not just Greeks. In one early chapter, Puchner shows how Alexander the Great was "a larger-than-life reader" who brought Aristotle's copy of The Iliad with him on his military campaign in Asia, reenacted key scenes from it, and emphasised and exported its values to the nations he conquered.

Puchner describes how, under Alexander's successors, Alexandria became the biggest Greek city in the world, one that went the full distance by replacing Egyptian hieroglyphics with letters inspired by the Greek alphabet. But even older than Egyptian hieroglyphics was Sumerian cuneiform, the writing system used to compose the Epic of Gilgamesh circa 2100 BC. As Puchner delved into this text – "this first masterpiece of world literature" – he found himself not only interested in the story but in what the story had been written on.

"It really mattered a lot that it was written on clay tablets," he explains. "It takes place in a city made of clay in Mesopotamia. Clay was an abundant material, and they figured out how to make houses, walls, pottery, irrigation systems. You have a clay world, and then out of this material emerges the most astonishing use of them all – writing."

Puchner says that writing was invented at least twice, both in Mesopotamia and in the Americas, by the Mayas. The first novel, however, was written further afield. "Many in the West think Don Quixote is the first novel and that the novel is a western invention," he says. "But the first great novel in world literature is The Tale of Genji, written around the year 1000 by an unknown lady-in-waiting in the court of Japan. She had to teach herself secretly how to use Chinese characters because women didn't have access to that kind of educational inheritance. Then she put that education and persistence to use by chronicling court life."

And doing so vividly and meticulously. “She gives us this incredibly intimate portrait of this closed and rarefied world. It is so attentive to individual psychology, to motivation, to small social signals – to the extent that we know more about that moment in Japanese history than about any other moment in the medieval world.”

One of Puchner's favourite chapters is that on One Thousand and One Nights – what he calls "the toy store of literature". "There is this human capacity and drive to tell stories. Once this storytelling impulse intersects with writing then you have these marvellous story collections. And I think One Thousand and One Nights is the most wonderful collection of them all."

Puchner tried to trace the origin of the tales by finding out who invented their narrator Scheherazade, “queen of the scribes”. After a while, he realised his task was impossible.

“What I found is that there is this unfathomable sea of stories, stories which merchants carried with them on the Silk Road and other trade routes, and which transformed when they moved from one place to another.”

Puchner tried a different approach and eschewed origins for technology – in this case paper. "When paper appeared in the Arabic world, it had a transformative effect. Suddenly all these stories that were told orally were compiled on paper and turned into literature. Silk and parchment had been really expensive materials. Paper was light, compact, affordable and available."

Paper ushered in a golden age of Arab letters and allowed the likes of One Thousand and One Nights to travel the world. How, I ask him, have these stories endured?

"Looking at 4,000 years of literature, I saw that for stories to survive, it takes a considerable investment in resources to transcribe them and keep them circulating. So there has to be something in them that speaks to people, that lends itself to being translated and transformed to new purposes.

"One Thousand and One Nights is a great example. The stories have such a simple construction, but also an ingenious frame: this brave Scheherazade narrating stories to this king who kills women, and keeping him hooked. In Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Nights created a kind of craze. There was a demand for new stories, and translators were bombarded, so they looked for storytellers in the Middle East, and kept adding stories that were not in the original. It endures because stories get added, retold and retranslated. Then Walt Disney comes along and does this all over again. You probably can't even remember when you first heard of a story from the Nights because they are everywhere."

The Written World goes on to chart the growth of other, more modern modes of writing, from autobiographies to manifestos to samizdat literature. Finally, Puchner enters "Potterworld". His research involved binge-reading J K Rowling's adventures. For an academic, he is refreshingly un-snobbish. "It is an amazing phenomenon that one author can invent this world through stories and then that world proliferates," he says. "It's a prime example of the power of literature."

In his book, Puchner argues that literature will only survive if it is used by every generation. He believes Harry Potter is "here to stay" because the generation that grew up with the books will pass them on to their children. In some ways Harry Potter is similar to One Thousand and One Nights," he says. "It is storytelling that catches on and continues on."

I ask what new literature and writing technologies he foresees. "I hesitate to predict the future," he laughs, "but in some sense I see a lot of old things returning. For the first time since the ancient world, we're using tablets again. We're scrolling through texts. Tweets and text messages remind me of these paper messages exchanged constantly in the Japanese court in The Tale of Genji. So in some ways these aren't entirely new things."

That said, if there is one thing Puchner has learnt from studying 4,000 years of literature it is that new technologies really transform "how we write, what we write, how we tell stories and what kind of stories we tell".

“What we’re living through will have a huge impact because it changes not just the format – the way the scroll gave way to the book; and not just the writing material – the way silk turned into paper; and not just the replication of literature – the way print replaced handwritten copies. But it’s like all of these things together at the same time. In the history of writing, I can’t think of a similar moment when all of these dimensions of writing changed at once. This is what we are witnessing.

“In the past, it often took a couple of hundred years for the ultimate effects to really make themselves felt. Things are moving faster now. Whatever happens, it’s going to be interesting.”

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The Written World: How Literature Shaped History
Martin Puchner