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Words of the world.

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 (Random House, $32, 448 pages, ISBN 9780812998931) enthralling. A Harvard literature professor who also teaches thousands of students around the globe through his popular online course, Puchner here takes on nothing less than a millennia-spanning examination of how key written works have shaped world culture. What could have been a dry survey is anything but--Puchner is a generous, natural teacher who brings these works and their origins to vivid life.

"Literature isn't just for book lovers," Puchner begins. "Ever since it emerged four thousand years ago, it has shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth." Storytelling, of course, is even older, but Puchner explains that it was only when storytelling intersected with writing that literature was born. Literature, he writes, proved to be a new force that spread ideas with unprecedented alacrity and ease. Puchner explores the evolution of writing technologies--from clay tablets to Twitter--and the preservation of the written word, particularly by early libraries. But what he primarily focuses on are what he calls foundational texts. He sees the story of literature unfolding in four stages. First, there was the writing down of stories that had long been shared orally: "The Epic of Gilgamesh," "The Iliad," the Hebrew Bible. Next came the recording of the wisdom of charismatic teachers such as Buddha, Socrates, Jesus and Confucius (done by their disciples, for none of these men left their own written records). The third stage was the emergence of individual authors with distinctive voices, beginning with the first novel by Lady Murasaki in 11th-century Japan. Finally, there came the mass-communication age, ushered in by the printing press, which brought the broad dissemination of wide-ranging, disparate and sometimes culture-shattering ideas from the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Goethe and even J.K. Rowling.

Puchner's entertaining saga of how literature shaped civilization begins with Alexander the Great (before flashing back even further in history), and like that legendary Macedonian, he lays claim to the known world. Eschewing any Western bias, Puchner's study takes readers from Asia to the postcolonial Caribbean, from Mayan Mexico to a global literary festival in contemporary India. Puchner's fascinating celebration of literature hesitates to stop in the present as he looks ahead at the transformative, second great explosion of the written word during which we live. He concludes, "What we can say for sure is that the world population has grown even as literacy rates have risen sharply, which means that infinitely more writing is being done by more people, published and read more widely, than ever before."

Erudition and enthusiasm combine seamlessly in Puchner's sweeping narrative, which comprises history, biography, technology and ideas. And while it is a cliche to say that 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.

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Title Annotation:WELL READ; Martin Puchner's "The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization"
Author:Weibezahl, Robert
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2017
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