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Words and the world

By Martin Punchner

The written word, in conjunction with innovations, lies at the very heart of history, shaping cultures and sensibilities in more ways than one can imagine

Literature isn’t just for book lovers. It is my belief that ever since it emerged 4,000 years ago, it has influenced and shaped human history - from The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer’s legendary Greek epics, and One Thousand and One Nights, the iconic collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the United States of America’s Declaration of Independence. When I began editing the Norton Anthology of World Literature 12 years ago, I underwent, in a sense, an incredible education. I was working on 6,000 pages of knowledge, alongside many collaborators and colleagues, and found myself confronted with several seminal texts that I hadn’t really known before. A few years later, when I was writing my new book, The Written World, the question that arose was this: how was I to decide on the texts that could be the foundation of an argument that literature has the power to influence history? The driving criterion became the intersection of storytelling and innovation. Each of the episodes I went on to outline, became an episode where an innovation shaped a new form of storytelling – from the creation of sacred scripture and stories driven in part by the advent of paper to the creation of the alphabet and the invention of the printing press. I came to understand which technologies were crucial and thought about what new kinds of texts emerged because of them.

How was I to decide on the texts that could be the foundation of an argument that literature has the power to influence history? The driving criterion became the intersection of storytelling and innovation.
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Murasaki Shikibu – arguably the first documented novelist in human history – was an 11th-century Japanese lady-in-waiting. Her novel, The Tale of Genji, fascinated me immensely as a piece of literature that chronicled and was shaped by the advent of paper. I have on an earlier occasion described Shikibu’s world as a paper world because in her book, she literally describes a world made of paper - screens, fans, clothes, shades and even weapons were made of paper! Japan was - at the time - a paper civilisation, so to speak, and this novel was written on paper as well as circulated in beautiful paper editions. Studying the work in this context enabled me to understand a fair bit about medieval Japanese sensibilities.


While literature has undergone its own set of transformations through the ages, there is always the question of how a piece of text created several centuries ago can still be of relevance to someone reading it today. This was something I felt about The Tale of Genji too – how familiar it seemed even to me, despite being set in a civilisation entirely different from my own. In my reading of earlier texts in general, in fact, I was very often struck by their ability to speak to future readers. While I am sure there is the component of certain human realities that remain constant even as transformations occur in the external world, I believe the continued relevance of older texts can be attributed to a dynamic process of interpretation. To put it simply, we read these texts differently from earlier generations. Written texts are fixed in one sense, while they aren’t in another. They lend themselves to a different kind of adaptability, which is the dynamic that makes possible their enduring appeal.


Looking back at 4,000 years of literature, I was fascinated by how relatively late the individual author appears on the scene. Most texts in the ancient world were assembled by scribes or editors, and what we understand today as an ‘author’ was a concept that didn’t exist at the time. The modern understanding of literature, where an author creates and owns a new story, is a concept that is barely 200 years old. This was, in fact, one of the most interesting upshots of delving into the history of the written word – how relatively recent authors are. In the light of new technologies today, one begins to realise how the modern author, who has been tied to the concept of print in some sense, is now morphing into something else. We are now in an age where we can all write our stories. But are we all authors? That’s really the question to be considered today, as authorship stands at the cusp of another transformation.


Whenever one speaks of literature shaping history, there is always a mention of the canon and texts that are considered important enough to be required reading at a particular point in time. The canon is, however, always changing, since our understanding of what is most important to read is continuously evolving.

When I began work on the Norton Anthology, I remember thinking, Oh, I am the general editor of this magnum opus of literature and I can now change the canon. I discovered very quickly, however, that I couldn’t. As part of putting the anthology together, I did thousands of questionnaires, travelled to colleges around the world and spoke to teachers as well as students. Through that entire process, I became very conscious of how many people shape a canon. It is an extremely dynamic process – the canon is never determined by one thinker, writer, editor or publisher.


Preservation and the loss of texts are an important consideration in the modern world. It is a common belief that the cost of storage is decreasing so rapidly today that the preservation of texts is no longer a problem. However, this is not actually the case. The greatest problem we’re facing today is the looming obsolescence of formats. We already can’t read floppy disks from 20 years ago, for instance, and websites that aren’t constantly maintained become illegible. Librarians, in fact, now say that the best way to ensure something is preserved is to print it out on a piece of paper. The cost of storage may be nearing zero, but the question of preservation has simply acquired a new dimension.


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