The Written World
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.

The Written World Details

TitleThe Written World
Author
ReleaseNov 24th, 2017
PublisherRandom House
Rating
GenreHistory, Nonfiction, Writing, Books About Books, Literary Fiction

The Written World Review

  • Patty
    January 1, 1970
    A nonfiction book that makes its way through human history via the medium of literature. Each of sixteen chapters focuses on a particular classic and shows how it both influenced and was influenced by contemporary events, from Homer's Odyssey giving Alexander the Great a hero to model himself after to The Communist Manifesto inspiring revolutions across the world. A subthread is the development of the technologies of literature itself – the inventions of the alphabet, paper, the printing press, A nonfiction book that makes its way through human history via the medium of literature. Each of sixteen chapters focuses on a particular classic and shows how it both influenced and was influenced by contemporary events, from Homer's Odyssey giving Alexander the Great a hero to model himself after to The Communist Manifesto inspiring revolutions across the world. A subthread is the development of the technologies of literature itself – the inventions of the alphabet, paper, the printing press, ebooks, etc. It's a pretty neat idea for a book! Unfortunately the execution is terrible. I started off being annoyed that Puchner never seems quite clear on what he means by the term 'literature'. He implies it only includes written works (in the Introduction he says, "It was only when storytelling intersected with writing that literature was born."), and yet many of the pieces he choses to focus on were primarily composed orally (The Odyssey and the Iliad, The Epic of Sunjata, the Popul Vuh, probably the Epic of Gilgamesh, certainly at least parts of One Thousand and One Nights). And yet there's never any discussion of what it means to go from an oral mode to a written one, a topic I was eagerly awaiting to see analyzed. It's just... never addressed beyond a passing mention here and there.Okay, fine, I thought to myself, Puchner means 'literature' as in 'stories'. But that doesn't work either, since once again many of his choices don't tell any sort of narrative (Saint Paul's letters, Martin Luther's theses, Benjamin Franklin's 'Poor Richard's Almanac', Confucius's Analects, Mao's 'Little Red Book'). So what does Puchner mean by literature, the central organizing principle of his whole book? God alone knows.My irritation with the book deepened when I got to Chapter Four, where Puchner claims credit for inventing the concept of the Axial Age: "It was only in the course of trying to understand the story of literature that I noticed a striking pattern in the teaching of the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus. Living within a span of a few hundred years but without knowing of one another, these teachers revolutionized the world of ideas. Many of today’s philosophical and religious schools—Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Western philosophy, and Christianity—were shaped by these charismatic teachers. It was almost as if in the five centuries before the Common Era, the world was waiting to be instructed, eager to learn new ways of thinking and being. But why? And what explained the emergence of these teachers?" Sure, dude, sure. You came up with this vastly original idea all on your own. (To be fair, if one choses to read through the endnotes, Puchner does cite Karl Jaspers, though he still insists his own version is ~so different~.)He then proceeds to get basic information about the Buddha completely wrong. For example: Some form of writing may have existed in India during the Buddha’s time (the so-called Indus Valley script may not have been a full writing system and remains undeciphered). This sentence. I can't even. I almost stopped reading the book right here, it's so incredibly incorrect. It's like saying, "Thomas Jefferson may have been literate, but since we find no Latin engravings in his house, we can't be sure." Let me lay out the problems. The Buddha lived around 500BCE; the last known well-accepted use of the Indus script was in 1900BCE. That's a gap of nearly two millennia. The Indus script was used on the western edge of South Asia, in Pakistan and the Indian states of Gujarat and Haryana; the Buddha lived on the eastern edge, in Nepal. At minimum, they're 500 miles apart. There is no chance in hell the Indus script was remotely relevant to writing about the Buddha. And in fact, we don't need to guess at the script of the Buddha's time and place. It's called Brahmi and it's quite well attested – though Puchner doesn't once mention it. He does include a photo of an Indus seal, because why not waste more space on utterly irrelevant information. Let's quickly go through the problems on the rest of this single paragraph:What mattered above all were the age-old hymns and stories of the Vedas, which were transmitted orally by specially appointed Brahmans for whom remembering the Vedas was an obligation and a privilege.Though the Vedas do have an important oral history, they were certainly written down by the time of the Buddha, and possibly as early as 1000BCE.The oldest Indian epic, the Ramayana, was also orally composed and only later written down, much like Homeric epics.The Mahabharata is generally considered to be the older of the two epics. Despite my disillusionment at this point, I continued on with the book. And to be fair, I noticed many fewer mistakes! Though possibly because I know much less about Renaissance Germany or Soviet Russia than I do about Indian history. I did hit several problems again in the chapter on the Popul Vuh, the Mayan epic. To begin with, the chapter opens with a long dramatic scene recreating the Spanish conquistadores' capture of Atahualpa, the Incan emperor. Incan. Who lived in Peru, in South America. The Classic Mayan culture was based in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize – North America and a bit of Central America. This time Puchner is literally on the wrong continent. Once he finally makes his way up to the Mayan homeland, he focuses his narration on Diego de Landa, a Spanish priest who did indeed write an important ethnography of the Mayans of the 1500s. The Classic Mayan Era was over by 950CE, introducing a discrepancy Puchner does not deign to acknowledge. Even aside from that small problem, Puchner describes Landa's writings multiple times as "an account [...] that has remained the primary source of information on Maya culture." This entirely ignores not only the Popul Vuh itself; but the multiple other Mayan codices that survived Spanish colonialism; the many Mayan writings carved on their pyramids, palaces, and stele, and painted on their pottery; their murals of war, sport, and history; the enormous archaeological record of their cities, technology, and diet; and, oh yeah, the fact that Mayan people are still around today.Oh, my bad – Puchner does remember the Mayans still exist. Here's what he has to say about them:"My journey began in the Lacandon jungle. A bus dropped me at the border of the Maya territory, where a beat-up truck picked me up at the side of the road. The village of several dozen huts was located in a clearing in the jungle. Everyone but me was dressed in what looked like long white nightgowns. Men and women both wore their black hair shoulder length (I thought of the shipwrecked sailor who had gone native), and most of them walked around barefoot, sometimes donning rubber boots."That's it. That's literally the only mention of the modern Mayan people. (Puchner's in the area to learn about the Zapatista uprising, to which he devotes the rest of the chapter.) I'm so glad he spent ages detailing that and de Landa's biography instead of devoting any space at all to the contemporary persistence of Mayan beliefs, language, or rituals. When I first read its blurb, I looked forward to the rest of The Written World. Unfortunately it's the closest I've come to hurling a book at the wall in a long, long time. I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
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  • Tiffany
    January 1, 1970
    Puchner’s examination of the growth of literature and its impact on civilizations throughout history is fascinating. I enjoyed every chapter and, honestly, learned quite a lot about how the written word truly influenced every society. I liked the fact that the narrative isn’t just of a person citing researched facts from inside a library or office, but that Puchner actually traveled the world searching out clues and trying to piece together the very complicated puzzle of how and when written lit Puchner’s examination of the growth of literature and its impact on civilizations throughout history is fascinating. I enjoyed every chapter and, honestly, learned quite a lot about how the written word truly influenced every society. I liked the fact that the narrative isn’t just of a person citing researched facts from inside a library or office, but that Puchner actually traveled the world searching out clues and trying to piece together the very complicated puzzle of how and when written literature started in the various places around the world and then spread. I also enjoyed the fact that the examination of the impact on civilizations did not stop with ancient civilizations but carried through all the way to modern day. With my backgrounds in literature and history, I did know a surface level of knowledge about the subject, but I feel more enlightened now having read this work. Thank you NetGalley and Random House for the ARC of the work in exchange for an honest review.
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  • Michelle Kidwell
    January 1, 1970
    The Written WorldThe Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilizationby Martin PuchnerRandom House Publishing Group - Random HouseRandom HouseHistoryPub Date 24 Oct 2017I am reviewing a copy of The Written World through Random House and Netgalley:In this book we learn of how stories, and the written world help shape the world, history and civilizations. Men Like Alexander of Macedonia in 336 B.C.E we’re impacted by literature. Alexander carried a copy of his favorite text the Iliad with h The Written WorldThe Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilizationby Martin PuchnerRandom House Publishing Group - Random HouseRandom HouseHistoryPub Date 24 Oct 2017I am reviewing a copy of The Written World through Random House and Netgalley:In this book we learn of how stories, and the written world help shape the world, history and civilizations. Men Like Alexander of Macedonia in 336 B.C.E we’re impacted by literature. Alexander carried a copy of his favorite text the Iliad with him.The Iliad did not start out as Litterature but as an oral story. The story is set around 1200 B.C.E. From stories written on Clay Tablets to Papyrus, and ancient libraries with texts sadly many lost to history The Written Word shows the place they all had and how they impact us even today. There is no denying that litterature has had its place throughought history and across cultures. Stories help to shape people. Stories have a place in all Religions. The first great novel in the world The Tale Of The Genji was written by a lady in waiting in the Japanese court around the year 1000 C.E. Sadly we do not know the name of the author.The invention of Gutenberg’s printing pressbin the fifteenth centurynwoyld allow literature to be more widely spread, and not only available to the wealthiest.This book takes us on a journey throughout the ages of litterature. If you are looking for a book that takes us on a journey through the history of the Written World thenThe Written World is just the ticket.Five out of five stars!Happy Reading!
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  • Darcysmom
    January 1, 1970
    I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley and Random House for free in exchange for an honest review. To say I loved The Written World: How Literature Shaped Civilization would be an understatement. I was drawn into this highly engaging book from the very first word. Martin Puchner is not only an academic of note, but a skilled storyteller. His passion for literature and his advocacy for its importance shine through in every page. The story he tells roams the world in both time and place. He I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley and Random House for free in exchange for an honest review. To say I loved The Written World: How Literature Shaped Civilization would be an understatement. I was drawn into this highly engaging book from the very first word. Martin Puchner is not only an academic of note, but a skilled storyteller. His passion for literature and his advocacy for its importance shine through in every page. The story he tells roams the world in both time and place. He makes a strong argument for literature as a driving force in politics, economics, and technology.The Written World is part history, part travelogue, part TBR inspiration, and entirely compelling.
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  • GONZA
    January 1, 1970
    REVIEW TO COME!
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