We Are What We Read

John Sutherland in The New York Times:

BooksI recall Noel Annan, the provost of University College London, declaring in the 1970s that the English literature department, historically the first such in England, was the “very heart” of the school. Any college president making such a claim as Annan’s today could await the men in white coats. It’s with exhilaration, then, that one hails Martin Puchner’s book, which asserts not merely the importance of literature but its all-importance. “Literature,” the first page declares, “since it emerged 4,000 years ago,” has “shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth.” We are what we read.

“The Written World” makes this grand assertion on the basis of a set of theses. Storytelling is as human as breathing. When fabulation intersected with writing, stories were empowered to propagate themselves in society and around the world as civilization-forming “foundational texts.” Puchner opens, by way of illustration, with Alexander the Great. Under his pillow at night he had, alongside his dagger, a copy of the “Iliad.” His literary GPS, we understand. As important as the epic’s originally oral story of great conquest was the script it was written in: That too would conquer worlds. This review is printed in a variant of it. The narrative gallops on to Mesopotamia, Nineveh, clay tablets, cuneiform and Gilgamesh. Puchner explains it all with brio. By Page 50 Ashurbanipal is a name the reader will feel able to drop knowingly into any conversation on literary matters. In chronological procession there follow Buddha, Confucius (a notably brilliant chapter), “The Tale of Genji” (hooray, at last, for the woman author), the Mayas (a dark episode), the Gospels, Gutenberg, Muhammad, Luther, Cervantes, Goethe, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Marx and Engels, the African epic of Sunjata — on, on and on to Derek Walcott (“new nations need stories to tell them who they are,” writes Puchner) and Harry Potter (“repetitive,” alas). The invention and spread of paper gave literature wings. So too did print and in our day, the web. Looking at his screen, Puchner wonders what foundational texts will flicker down to us. There is a joyous personality in this book. Puchner gives more of himself to the reader than most literary historians. As a child, he confides, he was entranced by the “Arabian Nights” — only cliff-hanging bedtime stories to her husband can save Scheherazade from being a one-night queen and next morning’s bridal corpse. But who originated this bundle of tales? The question nags at Puchner. He has a dream that he describes at length. What does the dream tell him? Stop looking. Searching is futile.

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