Book review: The Written World - How Literature Shaped History, by Martin Puchner

An early printing press, circa 1550, by Philip Galle after Johannes Stradanus. PIC: Rischgitz/Getty Images
An early printing press, circa 1550, by Philip Galle after Johannes Stradanus. PIC: Rischgitz/Getty Images
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If there is one thing which separates humans from other creatures, it is writing. Animals may show intelligence and even communication skills but a crow is yet to write a poem and an octopus has never penned an autobiography. It is the single most significant technology, or as Puchner shows in The Written World, intersections of technologies, in our history. We are, fundamentally, Homo Auctor.

Puchner’s book is both fascinating and infuriating. It is a hard task to cover over 4,000 years of literary activity in less than 400 pages, but he makes a fair fist of it. Some of the chapters are as one would expect – the Gilgamesh epic, Homer, the Bible, The Thousand And One Nights, the Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto. The introduction shows the askance way Puchner approaches his topic, with the Apollo 8 mission and their use of biblical quotation as they try to express the magnitude of seeing for the first time an “earth-rise”. Other chapters deal with texts readers may be less familiar with, such as Lady Murasaki’s The Tale Of Genji, the Mayan Popol Vuh (an interesting aside on whether or not literature and writing developed not once, but twice), and the Malian Sunjata story – Puchner is especially good on this, and the way in which an oral text becomes a written text and reveals its acquaintance with writing even while it was primarily a performance. He is good as well on Anna Akhmatova, and the many people who memorised her poem “Requiem”, and the emergence of samizdat publishing under Soviet censorship.

He has an interesting take on an extended version of the “Axial Age”, and ponders why so many of the key figures – the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and Jesus – eschewed writing. There is a resonant irony in Plato putting into writing, in the Phaedrus, Socrates’ arguments against writing. At the same time as charting the broad course of a polyvalent canon, Puchner looks at the nuts and bolts of the business. Clay, papyrus, parchment and paper were all disruptive technologies, and there is a degree of plus ça change when we consider that Babylonians wrote on tablets and Jewish priests and Roman poets scrolled their works. The combination of a wine-press and metal-working skills allowed Gutenberg to revolutionise the book. It is again a pleasing irony that Gutenberg began by printing indulgences and it was outrage at indulgences that led Martin Luther to become the first print celebrity (a third of all printed output in Luther’s lifetime in Germany was by Martin Luther).

The broad sweep is good – Puchner also takes in Cervantes and Goethe – but the broad sweep is sometimes at the expense of detail. “While some female novelists would adopt a male pseudonym, as George Eliot did, more often they wrote under their own names recording… the plight of governesses in England”. I take it this is a reference to either Agnes Grey or Jane Eyre, both of which were published by the respective Brontë sisters under the names Acton and Currer Bell. Likewise there is a throwaway reference to the first printed Qur’an but no detail on Paganino and Alessandro Paganini who produced it in 1537/8, or what the implications were for the Ottoman Empire seeing Christians using a machine to make copies of the Qur’an with, like every Early Modern book, errors.

Tales Of The Marvellous and News Of The Strange, Arab forerunners of One Thousand And One Nights, are not even mentioned.

At one cringe-inducing point, Puchner talks about his own American editor advising him he “needed a more constant presence in the book”. This translates into various asides of “I visited Pergamum / Palermo / the British Museum / Jerusalem”. It’s not the only inelegant repetition. Phrases like “foundational text”, “textual fundamentalism” and “origin story” are drummed into readers as if we are a particularly thick class of students. The final two chapters are the most – well one could say autobiographical, but self-indulgent would be better. On visiting (again) St Lucia to meet the late Derek Walcott, Puchner writes: “‘What are you interested in?’ Walcott asked, and I tried to explain something about Goethe’s journey to Sicily and how it had inspired me to travel and look for literary traces whenever I could. I was not doing a very good job”. That there is what we call a hostage to fortune. Similarly, an account of going to the Jaipur Festival, twinned with a reading of Harry Potter, is less than one would expect from the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University.

The book excels at showing the global nature of the written word: Chinese paper and printing, via the Silk Road into the Middle East, transferred to Europe where canny business practices and engineering know-how eventually meant that millennia old writing, originally done on clay, could be available in high-street bookshops. Of course, the new world of free content and digital publishing means just another sea-change in a story that was always roiling and turbulent.

The Written World: How Literature Shaped History, by Martin Puchner, Granta, £14.99