Sunday, November 12, 2017

Q&A with Martin Puchner

Martin Puchner, photo by Gretjen Helen
Martin Puchner is the author of the new book The Written World: The Power of  Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization. His other books include The Norton Anthology of World Literature and The Drama of Ideas. He is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, and he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new book?

A: One source of inspiration was editing the Norton Anthology of World Literature, a six-volume textbook that begins with the Epic of Gilgamesh and ends in the early 21st century. In the process of deciding what to include, I read lots of authors I hadn’t known before.

At first, I was completely overwhelmed. Too much to read! But once I gotten over that, I also began to feel immense excitement. Slowly I was beginning to see something I had not seen before: a bird’s-eye view of 4,000 years of literature. It was awe-inspiring. I wanted to capture that and communicate it to others.

The other reason for the book was that I felt around me this immense anxiety about reading, people feeling that literature was losing ground to other media, that nobody was reading anymore.

I sympathized, but instead of complaining about it, I felt I should show how powerful literature had been, to show it in action. So, secretly, I wanted to write a defense of literature, but one that didn’t sound defensive…

Q: The book covers thousands of years of literature and history, spanning the entire world. How did you research it, and what did you learn that especially intrigued you?

A: Yes, good question. The work on the Norton Anthology definitely helped a lot, not only because I was forced to leave my own comfort zone, but also because I worked with lots of specialists from different areas. In the process, I learned a lot.

As I was researching the influence of literature on the world, how it shaped history, I felt that I needed to get out of my armchair and visit as many of the places I was writing about as I could. And it really changed my view of things.

Seeing how small Troy really was, as opposed to how it was depicted in Homer’s Iliad, drove home to me something important about epic literature; meeting some of the contemporary authors I was writing about, such as Derek Walcott and Orhan Pamuk, was inspiring and instructive; contemplating the ruins of libraries reminded me of the enormous resources ancient civilizations had spent on literature.

Q: Chapter One starts with Alexander the Great. Why did you choose to begin there?

A: How to begin—always a tricky thing. I always knew I wanted to start [in the introduction] with the Apollo 8 reading of Genesis—I find it incredibly moving to imagine that the first time humans left the vicinity of the earth they chose to read from one of the great creation mythos of world literature.

But then, how to proceed further. By strict chronology, I would have to begin with the Epic of Gilgamesh. But I felt that the story of how Alexander the Great drew inspiration for his conquest of Asia from Homer, how he brought his copy of the Iliad with him and slept on it every night, perfectly captured the influence of literature on history. So, I decided to start with that and then go chronologically from there on.

Q: You note that “the written world is poised to change yet again.” What do you see looking ahead?

A: You want me to predict the future! And yes, I admit it, I emphasized the influence of different writing technologies because we’re living through a technological revolution of how we read and write, and I wanted to understand what was going on.

In the past, big changes—the invention of paper; of print—meant two things: the early adopters of the new technologies were often the most canonical texts, often sacred texts. The first existing printed book is a Buddhist sutra. Gutenberg printed the Latin Bible.

But at the same time, these changes brought with them an explosion of popular writing that often resulted in new types of literature, such as the novel.

I think we can see the same today. Canonical literature is easily accessible, often for free. And the Internet is full of new forms of writing, from blogs and tweets to specialized romances. All of these trends will continue.

But, in the end, it’s too soon to tell. In the past, it often took hundreds of years for the new technologies to change literature.
Here’s a prediction: it’s going to be interesting…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m spending the year at the Cullman Center, which is part of the New York Public Library, to write a book about a secret language, a thieves’ cant called Rotwelsch, that was spoken in the underworld of Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

I partially grew up with this language (though not because I come from a family of thieves!), and I believe I am one of its last speakers (or sort-of speakers). The book is both a history of this secret language and a family history—and a quixotic attempt to keep this language from disappearing. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think it’s worth pointing out that the history of literature and writing I am telling places a lot of emphasis on non-Western literature. It was interesting to see what turned out to be the most important texts and episodes.

The first great novel was The Tale of Genji, written by a Lady-in-Waiting at the Court of Japan, in the Middle Ages, a woman who had to teach herself Chinese characters secretly. A very moving and inspiring story.

I also write about a terrific epic from Western Africa, the Epic of Sunjata, that should be much better known than it is.

And in the 20th century, the key chapter revolves around Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet who persisted in the face of prosecution and terror by teaching her poetry to her close female friends, so no written trace could be found by the secret police.

So, while there are lots of well-known texts and figures—Homer, Alexander the Great, 1001 Nights, Benjamin Franklin—there are also lesser-known writers who are really terrific. I hope that my own sense of discovery comes through in the book and will inspire others.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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