Great books shape lives, everyone knows that. This series explores the idea that even a single line of poetry or prose can rewire something in a person’s brain, changing the way they think or feel. But in a new book, The Written World, the Harvard professor Martin Puchner argues that literature’s impact extends far beyond the individual experience—its collective import may be far greater than readers realize.
In a globetrotting, epoch-spanning history, Puchner argues that written works—and the ever-changing technologies used to sustain them—have defined societies since the beginning of recorded time. It’s texts, after all, from The Iliad to the Quran to the U.S. Constitution, that have defined religions, shaped the priorities of nations, and inspired the most momentous actions of historic leaders. (Alexander the Great, for example, slept with a dagger under his pillow—and beside it, a copy of The Iliad.)
“Literature isn’t just for book lovers,” Puchner writes in his introduction. “Ever since it emerged 4,000 years ago, it has shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth.”
As he works from ancient Mesopotamia to the moon landing, Puchner notes the way historical events continually follow the same pattern: A technological shift enables new forms of writing, which allows new voices and ideas to proliferate, ultimately changing culture forever. In a conversation for “By Heart,” Puchner explained how the career of Murasaki Shikibu—an 11th-century Japanese lady-in-waiting, and history’s first novelist—both chronicled and was enabled by the rise of paper; her epic novel, The Tale of Genji, became a foundational text that influenced Japanese aesthetics for centuries to come. Puchner used Murasaki’s example to discuss the techno-literary shifts causing change and anxiety in the contemporary age, and why he believes an inclusive, evolving world literature—not a static, ossified “canon”—will be key to solving global problems in the future.
Martin Puchner is a professor of drama and of English and comparative literature at Harvard University, and editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spoke to me by phone.
Martin Puchner: I first encountered Murasaki Shikibu about 12 years ago, when I was asked to edit The Norton Anthology of World Literature, this big six-volume door-stopper that spans from the beginnings of writing to the present. Working on the anthology encouraged me to read more widely than I ever had before, and Murasaki—both for her diary and her better-known work The Tale of Genji—was one of the great discoveries for me. It made me realize just how provincial my reading habits had been.
The book was written about 1,000 years ago, at a time when a lot of literature was still produced by scribes, collected from various sources and cobbled together by editors. The foundational epics and religious texts in circulation then were very different from the reading material we’re used to. In that context, Murasaki’s diary felt to me like a turning point in the history of literature—it sounds so recognizable, so intimate, so modern. The fact that someone living in an extremely different time, halfway around the world, a thousand years ago, could whisper in my ear in that way—it’s magical. That experience is part of what draws me to world literature in general, a reminder of the power writing has to transport a voice across time and space.
Murasaki overcame all kinds of adversity to become an author, which is one of the reasons her diaristic confessions are so compelling. At the time, the origins of Japanese literature were in Chinese literature, the Chinese classics—but women, even women from literate families as Murasaki was, were not allowed to study them. She taught herself these works secretly, by spying on her brother as he was tutored. Later, she struggled with the confines society placed on her as an author. Somehow, she persevered and turned these handicaps into an asset, delivering this minutely observed, masterful novel, the first great novel in world literature.
One of the wonderful things about Murasaki, both in the novel and in her diary, is that paper is so central to the world she describes. There are privacy screens made out of paper, paper fans, parts of clothing made of paper, but most of all the short messages on paper that were constantly being sent back and forth in Japanese courts. These weren’t all that different from our modern-day text messages. Courtiers would write short poems to one another, with all kinds of etiquette surrounding how long you waited to respond, and how you responded, and even what kind of paper you used for your response. I started to think of Murasaki’s world, really, as a paper world—it’s really that central to the life she portrays, and to The Tale of Genji itself.
As such, The Tale of Genji is a great example of something I write about in The Written World: how the mechanisms of writing itself influence an author’s process. Major technological shifts tend to change the way texts circulate, how they are read, and by whom they are read—which, in turn, always has an effect on the content of a literary work.
When Murasaki wrote, paper had become easier to produce and more abundant than ever, and held special cultural status in Japan. As a technology, paper transformed the way stories were told—even before print. It lowered the cost of writing, which led to this explosion of popular literature. (Arabian Nights is one example.) This allowed new readers to enter the marketplace for the first time. Ultimately, it also led to new approaches to high art, including the form we now term the novel.
Today, of course, we’re seeing technology bring about major shifts in the ways reader and writers are connected. As the internet allows more people to write and publish than ever before, you see a popularization and democratization of literature. It’s resulted in emerging new genres, like fan fiction or these hyper-specialized romances that proliferate on Amazon. Then, of course, there are blogs, and Twitter, and the many other new platforms. It’s too early to say whether any of them will have staying power, but there’s clearly a lot happening at the popular end of writing.
Historically, these major transformations tend to cause anxiety, too—just as the current moment is causing anxiety now. There’s always the fear that if the system of writing changes, something important changes in our culture. And often it does. One current concern, at least among librarians, is the obsolescence of formats. We really don’t know whether we’ll still have devices that can read whatever electronic format you happen to compose or store something in, even 20 years from now. Most librarians and archivists will say: If you really want to ensure that something will be legible in the future, print it out. There’s no replacement for a physical hard copy you can store in a box in the basement. At the same time, resources like the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg provide incredible access to the canonical literature, and some uncanonical literature, from the last 4,000 years. In some ways, these texts are clearly more easily available than ever before.
There is also anxiety about the ways cultural transformation impacts what we read. You could see this at play in the so-called “canon wars,” the debate about which texts, if any, should be required reading. Some lament the decreased emphasis on courses with titles like “The Western Tradition,” and so on, which have long been offered at American universities. I love these courses, too—but they rely on a kind of artificially manufactured curriculum. No one would be more surprised than Homer or Virgil if they’d heard that they were part of “Western literature.” That is a modern concept, one we impose on the past. There’s no reason why the Epic of Gilgamesh should not be part of a course on Western culture, if The Aeneid should.
Besides, it’s not like there has always been one stable canon, and now we’re suddenly changing it. Certain canons emerge at certain times, and they’ve always changed. Our sense of what’s most important to read is continually evolving, and texts fall out of fashion and reemerge to suit their times.
America today is an incredibly diverse country, one that’s part of an increasingly globalized world. Our literature should reflect that. The term world literature was coined less than 200 years ago, which you could argue is when globalization as we currently know it began to occur. There are a lot of debates today about the problems of globalization, conversations that are worth having. But when it comes to literature, I believe it’s always better to have a global perspective. I’m a true believer in that. We need to strive to look beyond our own horizons, and to try to read literature from remote places—and to foster a climate where reading broadly is rewarded, with a wide range of literature published in translation.
At the end of Murasaki’s diary, there is this sense of decay. Her life in the Heian court had come to an end, more or less, and she had many disappointments about the way things had turned out. This manifests in a moving passage focused on the fact that she’s no longer using new paper:
Recently I tore up and burned most of my old letters and papers. I used the rest to make dolls’ houses this last spring and since then I have had no correspondence to speak of. I feel I should not use new paper so I’m afraid this will look very shabby.
A shift is evident even in the very paper she wrote these words on—as if her thoughts are only worthy of used scrap paper, not anything more refined or durable. She began using paper to make dollhouses, rather than write and, elsewhere, there’s a sense her manuscript itself is being eaten by worms. It’s hard to know exactly what caused this change of heart. We know so little about Murasaki. Even her name is lost—Murasaki is the name of the female protagonist of The Tale of Genji, and the author is named after her. But her ambivalence toward her own legacy comes through clearly in this passage, and you sense that she feels she may not even leave one.
But though this glorious paper world is somehow decaying, it doesn’t mean that everything is breaking down. She’s still writing. And that’s what’s wonderful: the way so much writing, even notes written on scrap paper by an anonymous writer in 11th-century Japan, manages to be preserved through time. Against all odds, cultures manage to preserve works of brilliance, despite the impermanent materiality of their physical substance. I love these stories of survival. In some cases, they are close calls, as in the Epic of Gilgamesh, written on clay tablets on a library that burned, and survived for 2,000 years underground before being discovered. In other places, preservation depends on the foresight of certain figures or scribes—like the Popol Vuh, this great Mayan epic that might have been entirely wiped out by the Spanish if Mayan scribes hadn’t realized its importance and written it down in the alphabet of the victors, the Latin alphabet, so future generations would be able to read it.
We are richer for having texts like these, preserved across distance and time. And today, this shared literary inheritance strikes me as particularly important as we face vast, global challenges. Often, we struggle even to comprehend the scale of the issues at stake. The word global itself is so abstract, and people quickly feel overwhelmed. It’s impossible for anyone to really wrap their minds around the implications of living in a globalized society. It doesn’t work.
But it seems to me that, through global storytelling, we may ultimately be able to arrive at an effective understanding of what the globe is. That may be a vain hope. But I think it is world literature, rather than national literature, that will show us who we are—and that is something that we should embrace.
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