The Written World: The Power Of Stories To Shape People, History, Civilization by Martin PuchnerThe Written World: The Power Of Stories To Shape People, History, Civilization by Martin Puchner

The Written World: The Power Of Stories To Shape People, History, Civilization

byMartin Puchner

Hardcover | October 24, 2017

Pricing and Purchase Info

$30.22 online 
$42.00 list price save 28%
Earn 151 plum® points

Prices and offers may vary in store


In stock online

Ships free on orders over $25

Available in stores


The story of literature in sixteen acts—from Homer to Harry Potter, including The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote, The Communist Manifesto, and how they shaped world history

In this groundbreaking book, Martin Puchner leads us on a remarkable journey through time and around the globe to reveal the how stories and literature have created the world we have today. Through sixteen foundational texts selected from more than four thousand years of world literature, he shows us 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.

We meet Murasaki, a lady from eleventh-century Japan who wrote the first novel, The Tale of Genji, and follow the adventures of Miguel de Cervantes as he battles pirates, both seafaring and literary. We watch Goethe discover world literature in Sicily, and follow the rise in influence of The Communist Manifesto. Puchner takes us to Troy, Pergamum, and China, speaks with Nobel laureates Derek Walcott in the Caribbean and Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, and introduces us to the wordsmiths of the oral epic Sunjata in West Africa. This delightful narrative also chronicles the inventions—writing technologies, the printing press, the book itself—that have shaped people, commerce, 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.

Praise for The Written World

“It’s with exhilaration . . . that one hails Martin Puchner’s book, which asserts not merely the importance of literature but its all-importance. . . . Storytelling is as human as breathing.”The New York Times Book Review

“Puchner has a keen eye for the ironies of history. . . . His ideal is ‘world literature,’ a phrase he borrows from Goethe. . . . The breathtaking scope and infectious enthusiasm of this book are a tribute to that ideal.”The Sunday Times (U.K.) 

“Enthralling . . . Perfect reading for a long chilly night . . . [Puchner] brings these works and their origins to vivid life.”—BookPage

“Well worth a read, to find out how come we read.”—Margaret Atwood, via Twitter
Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His prizewinning books cover subjects from philosophy to the arts, and his bestselling six-volume Norton Anthology of World Literature and his HarvardX MOOC (massive open online course) have brought four thousa...
Title:The Written World: The Power Of Stories To Shape People, History, CivilizationFormat:HardcoverDimensions:448 pages, 9.5 × 6.1 × 1.5 inPublished:October 24, 2017Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0812998936

ISBN - 13:9780812998931

Look for similar items by category:


Read from the Book

chapter 1Alexander’s Pillow Book336 b.c.e.—­MacedoniaAlexander of Macedonia is called the Great because he managed to unify the proud Greek city-­states, conquer every kingdom between Greece and Egypt, defeat the mighty Persian army, and create an empire that stretched all the way to India—­in less than thirteen years. People have wondered ever since how a ruler from a minor Greek kingdom could accomplish such a feat. But there was always a second question, more intriguing to me, which was why Alexander wanted to conquer Asia in the first place.In contemplating this question, I found myself focusing on three objects that Alexander carried with him throughout his military campaign and that he put under his pillow every night, three objects that summed up the way he saw his campaign. The first was a dagger. Next to his dagger, Alexander kept a box. And inside the box, he placed the most precious of the three objects: a copy of his favorite text, the Iliad.How did Alexander come by these three objects, and what did they mean to him?Alexander slept on a dagger because he wanted to escape his father’s fate of being assassinated. The box he had seized from Darius, his Persian opponent. And the Iliad he had brought to Asia because it was the story through which he saw his campaign and life, a foundational text that captured the mind of a prince who would go on to conquer the world.Homer’s epic had been a foundational text for the Greeks for generations. For Alexander, it acquired the status of an almost sacred text, which is why he carried it with him on his campaign. It is what texts, especially foundational ones, do: They change the way we see the world and also the way we act upon it. This was certainly the case with Alexander. He was induced not only to read and study this text, but also to reenact it. Alexander, the reader, put himself into the story, viewing his own life and trajectory in the light of Homer’s Achilles. Alexander the Great is well known as a larger-­than-­life king. It turns out that he was also a larger-­than-­life reader.A Young AchillesAlexander learned the lesson of the dagger while still a prince, at a turning point in his life. His father, King Philip II of Macedonia, was marrying off a daughter, and no one could afford to decline his invitation. Emissaries from the Greek city-­states would have been sent, along with visitors from recently conquered lands in Thrace, where the Danube met the Black Sea. Perhaps even some Persians were in the crowd, attracted by King Philip’s military successes. Alexander’s father stood on the eve of a major assault on Asia Minor, striking fear in the heart of Darius III, king of Persia. The mood in the old Macedonian capital, Aegae, was exuberant, because King Philip was famous for throwing lavish parties. Everyone had assembled in the great theater, eager for the proceedings to begin.Alexander must have watched the preparations with ambivalence. He had been groomed to be his father’s successor from an early age, with forced marches and training in the martial arts. He had become a famous horseman, astonishing his father by breaking an unmanageable horse when he was in his early teens. King Philip had also seen to Alexander’s education in public speaking and had made sure that his son would learn proper Greek in addition to the mountain dialect spoken in Macedonia. (Throughout his life, Alexander would revert back to the Macedonian dialect when enraged.) But now it seemed that Philip, who had invested so much in Alexander, might alter his plans for succession. He was marrying his daughter to his brother-­in-­law, who might well become Alexander’s rival. If the marriage produced a son, Alexander could be replaced altogether. Philip was a master at knitting new alliances, preferably through marriage. Alexander knew that his father would not hesitate to break a promise if it served his purpose.There was no more time for musing: Philip was entering the theater. He came alone, without his usual guards, to demonstrate confidence and control. Never had Macedonia been more powerful and more respected. If the campaign into Asia Minor succeeded, Philip would become known as the Greek leader who had attacked and defeated the Persian Empire on its own shores.Suddenly, an armed man rushed toward Philip. A dagger was drawn, and the king fell to the ground. People ran toward him. Where was the attacker? He had managed to escape. A few bodyguards spotted him outside and gave chase. He was running toward a horse. But his foot became entangled in vines; he stumbled and fell. His pursuers caught up with him, and, after a short fight, he was put to the sword. Back in the theater, the king was lying in his blood, dead. Macedonia, the Greek alliance, and the army assembled to take on Persia were without a head.For the rest of his life Alexander would protect himself with a dagger, even at night, to avoid his father’s fate.Had Darius of Persia sent the assassin to prevent Philip’s assault on Asia Minor? If Darius was behind the murder, he had miscalculated. Alexander used the murder as a pretext to get rid of his potential rivals, seize the throne, and launch an expedition to secure the Macedonian borders to the north and the loyalty of the Greek city-­states to the south. Then he was ready to take on Darius. He crossed the Hellespont with a large force, retracing the path the Persian army had taken when it invaded Greece generations ago. Alexander’s conquest of Persia had begun.Before he confronted the Persian army, Alexander made a detour to Troy. He didn’t do so for military reasons. Even though Troy was well situated near the narrow waterway between Asia and Europe, it had lost the importance it once had. Nor did he go there to capture Darius. In making Troy his first stop in Asia, Alexander revealed a different motivation for his conquest of Asia, one that could be found in the text he carried around with him everywhere: Homer’s Iliad.Homer was the avenue by which many people had approached Troy ever since the stories of the Trojan War had become a foundational text. It’s certainly the reason I went to Troy. I had read a children’s version of the Iliad while growing up before graduating to more faithful translations. When I studied Greek in college, I even read parts in the original, with the help of a dictionary. The famous scenes and characters from this text have been in my mind ever since, including the opening, which finds the Greek army having laid siege to Troy for nine years and Achilles withdrawing from battle because Agamemnon had taken Achilles’ female captive, Briseis, for himself. Without their best fighter, the Greeks are hard pressed by the Trojans. But then Achilles returns to battle and kills the most important Trojan, Hector, and drags his body around the city walls. With the help of the gods, Paris manages to retaliate and kill Achilles by aiming his arrow at Achilles’ heel. I also remembered the war among the gods, Athena fighting on the side of the Greeks and Aphrodite on the side of the Trojans. And the strange backstory of Paris crowning Aphrodite the most beautiful goddess and receiving Menelaus’ wife, Helen, as a reward, which sets off the war. The most striking image of them all was of course the Trojan horse with Greek soldiers hidden inside its belly, although I realized, to my surprise, once I read more accurate translations, that the last part of the war was actually not recounted in the Iliad and only briefly in the Odyssey.When I think of the story of Troy in the Iliad, there is one scene that has stayed in my mind above all others. Hector has returned from the battle that is raging down below the city and is looking for his wife, Andromache. He can’t find her at home because she has rushed out into the city in search of news of him. Hector finally finds her near the city gate. She pleads with him not to risk his life, but he explains that he must fight to keep her safe. In the midst of this high-­stakes exchange, a nurse brings their son:With these words, resplendent HectorReached for his child, who shrank back screamingInto his nurse’s bosom, terrified of his father’sBronze-­encased face and the horsehair plumeHe saw nodding down from the helmet’s crest.This forced a laugh from his father and mother,And Hector removed the helmet from his headAnd set it on the ground all shimmering with light.Then he kissed his dear son and swung him up gentlyAnd said a prayer to Zeus and the other immortals.In the middle of a brutal war that is raging right outside the gate, and of a heated exchange between husband and wife about the meaning of the war, suddenly the mood changes as the father laughingly removes the helmet that is frightening the child. It is a moment of domestic reconciliation, the helmet giving way to Hector’s laughing face before he kisses his son. But the helmet is still there, sitting on the ground shimmering with light, and perhaps the child is still sobbing, a reminder that this is but a brief reprieve from the war that will end with the death of Hector and the destruction of the great city of Troy.All of this was in my mind when I first approached the ruins of Troy, situated high upon a hill. The citadel was once located close to the sea, but since the fall of Troy around the year 1200 b.c.e., the sea has receded due to the sediments brought by the river Scamander. Whereas in ancient times Troy had commanded the waterway between Asia and Europe, it now simply rose from a wide plane, cut off from the sea, which I could barely see on the horizon.What was even more disappointing than the city’s position in the landscape was its size. Troy was tiny. I was able to cross within five minutes what I had imagined as a gigantic, towering fortress and city. How this minifortress had withstood the mighty Greek army for so long was difficult to fathom. Was this what epic literature did, taking a small fortress and blowing it out of proportion?As I was mulling over my disappointment, it struck me that Alexander reacted in exactly the opposite way: He loved Troy. Like me, Alexander had dreamed of the epic since childhood, when he had first been introduced to the Homeric world. He had learned to read and write by studying Homer. Pleased with Alexander’s success, King Philip had found the most famous living philosopher, Aristotle, and persuaded him to come north to Macedonia. Aris­totle happened to be the greatest commentator on Homer and regarded Homer as the fount of Greek culture and thought. Under his tutelage, Alexander came to regard Homer’s Iliad not just as the most important story of Greek culture, but also as an ideal to which he aspired, a motivation for crossing into Asia. The copy of the Iliad that Alexander put under his pillow every night was annotated by his teacher, Aristotle.The first thing Alexander did upon his arrival in Asia was to pay homage at the grave of Protesilaus, praised in the Iliad as the first to leap ashore when the Greek ships landed. This act proved to be only the beginning of Alexander’s Homeric reenactment. Once they had made their way to Troy, Alexander and his friend Hephaestion laid wreaths at the graves of Achilles and Patroclus, showing the world that they were following in the footsteps of that famous pair of Greek warriors and lovers. They and their companions raced naked around the city walls, in Homeric fashion. When Alexander was given what was allegedly Paris’s lyre, he complained that he would have preferred that of Achilles; and he took armor preserved from the Trojan War. He would conquer Asia in Homeric armor.While Troy had no direct strategic significance, it revealed the secret springs of Alexander’s campaign: Alexander had come to Asia to relive the stories of the Trojan War. Homer had shaped the way Alexander viewed the world, and now Alexander carried out that view through his campaign. When Alexander arrived in Troy, he took it upon himself to carry on the epic story—­beyond that which Homer could have imagined. Alexander made Homer bigger by reenacting the conquest of Asia on a grander scale. (He also seemed to have preferred different parts of the Iliad than I did: Whereas I gravitated to the domestic scene of Hector, Andromache, and their son, Alexander identified with Achilles and his prowess in battle.)While Alexander was at Troy, Darius of Persia sent an army that included Persian commanders and Greek mercenaries. The first clash between Alexander and the Persians, on the Granicus River, left the Persian army defeated, and Darius learned that this young Macedonian was a bigger threat than he had thought. Seeing that he needed to take things into his own hands, Darius began to assemble a large army to put an end to this troublemaker.Alexander’s Macedonian and Greek army was smaller than the Persian force but better trained, and the Greeks had developed formidable battle tactics. Alexander’s father had inherited the Greek phalanx, rows of interlocking foot soldiers who wielded a shield in one hand and a spear in the other, protecting and supporting each other. By tightening the discipline of his soldiers through training, Philip had been able to increase the length of their spears, turning the rows of soldiers into an impenetrable movable wall. Upon resuming the throne, Alexander had combined the improved phalanx with a swift cavalry that could encircle an army and attack from the rear. His own fighting style was uniquely calculated to inspire his soldiers. While his adversary Darius usually hung back when his armies fought, Alexander would lead the attack, throwing himself into the fray whenever he could. Once, when laying siege to a city, he scaled the walls before any of his men and jumped down without them, finding himself with only two guards by his side facing a swarm of the city’s defenders. When his men finally caught up with him, they found him pressed hard on all sides and wounded, but still defending himself vigorously.The two armies finally met late in the year 333 b.c.e. at Issus, near the border separating today’s Turkey from Syria. The coast here quickly gave way to mountains, leaving relatively little room for Darius’s large army. Confident in his superior numbers, Darius attacked

Table of Contents

Introduction: Earthrise                                                                                                            
Map and Timeline of the Written World                                                                                 
Chapter 1: Alexander’s Pillow Book                                                                                     
Chapter 2: King of the Universe: Of Gilgamesh and Ashurbanipal                                       
Chapter 3: Ezra and the Creation of Holy Scripture                                                               
Chapter 4: Learning from the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus                                 
Chapter 5: Murasaki and The Tale of Genji: The First Great Novel in World History           
Chapter 6: One Thousand and One Nights with Scheherazade                                              
Chapter 7: Gutenberg, Luther, and the New Public of Print                                                   
Chapter 8: The Popol Vuh and Maya Culture: A Second, Independent Literary Tradition     
Chapter 9: Don Quixote and the Pirates                                                                                 
Chapter 10: Benjamin Franklin: Media Entrepreneur in the Republic of Letters        
Chapter 11: World Literature: Goethe in Sicily                                                                      
Chapter 12: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao: Readers of The Communist Manifesto, Unite!        
Chapter 13: Akhmatova and Solzhenitsyn: Writing Against the Soviet State             
Chapter 14: The Epic of Sunjata and the Wordsmiths of West Africa                        
Chapter 15: Postcolonial Literature: Derek Walcott, Poet of the Caribbean                            
Chapter 16: From Hogwarts to India                                                                                     
Illustration Credits                                                                                                                  

Editorial Reviews

“[Puchner] emphasises the ubiquity of storytelling across human history, elevating it in the manner of the historian Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind into perhaps the defining human trait, necessary to instil the trust on which so much else is built. . . . The book builds a convincing case that writing technologies are more foundational in major historical moments than we may have otherwise thought.”—Financial Times   “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. . . . Puchner is a generous, natural teacher who brings these works and their origins to vivid life. . . . Education and enthusiasm combine seamlessly in Puchner’s sweeping narrative, which comprises history, biography, technology and ideas. And while it is a cliché to say 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.”—BookPage   “Puchner has a keen eye for the ironies of history. . . . [His] seemingly boundless curiosity propels him not just through the world of books but around the globe. . . . His ideal is ‘world literature,’ a phrase he borrows from Goethe, who was impatient with cultural frontiers, read Chinese novels and Persian poetry and knew a dozen languages. The breathtaking scope and infectious enthusiasm of this book are a tribute to that ideal.”—The Sunday Times   “In this timely chronicle, Puchner, a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard University, tells the story both of the ideas that shaped civilization and the equally crucial technology that transmitted and preserved those ideas. . . . By providing snapshots of key moments in the written word’s evolution, Puchner creates a gripping intellectual odyssey.”—Publishers Weekly   “Puchner doesn’t just tell us about the important works of literature that have shaped civilization over four thousand years, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Don Quixote to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. He tells us about the people whose personal persuasions led them to create those works. It’s literature not as mirror, then, but as potent force.”—Library Journal“Well worth a read, to find out how come we read.”—Margaret Atwood, via Twitter  “The Written World is not only an expansive, exuberant survey of the central importance of literature in human culture but also a great adventure story—a story of letters and paper and rocket ships, of ruthless conquerors and elegant court ladies and middle-class entrepreneurs, of the will to power and the dream of freedom.”—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern