Since it’s Nonfiction November, I think it’s only fitting that I do at least one nonfiction review. I am always on board for books about books, so I was pretty excited when I first saw Martin Puchner’s The Written World. It’s all about how literature shaped the world as we know it – something I think most bookworms might be interested in.
(All reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.)
(From Goodreads) In this groundbreaking book, Martin Puchner leads us on a remarkable journey through time and around the globe to reveal the powerful role stories and literature have played in creating the world we have today. Puchner introduces us to numerous visionaries as he explores sixteen foundational texts selected from more than four thousand years of world literature and reveals how writing has inspired the rise and fall of empires and nations, the spark of philosophical and political ideas, and the birth of religious beliefs. Indeed, literature has touched the lives of generations and changed the course of history.
At the heart of this book are works, some long-lost and rediscovered, that have shaped civilization: the first written masterpiece, the Epic of Gilgamesh; Ezra’s Hebrew Bible, created as scripture; the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus; and the first great novel in world literature, The Tale of Genji, written by a Japanese woman known as Murasaki. Visiting Baghdad, Puchner tells of Scheherazade and the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, and in the Americas we watch the astonishing survival of the Maya epic Popol Vuh. Cervantes, who invented the modern novel, battles pirates both real (when he is taken prisoner) and literary (when a fake sequel to Don Quixote is published). We learn of Benjamin Franklin’s pioneering work as a media entrepreneur, watch Goethe discover world literature in Sicily, and follow the rise in influence of The Communist Manifesto. We visit Troy, Pergamum, and China, and we speak with Nobel laureates Derek Walcott in the Caribbean and Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, as well as the wordsmiths of the oral epic Sunjata in West Africa.
Throughout The Written World, Puchner’s delightful narrative also chronicles the inventions—writing technologies, the printing press, the book itself—that have shaped religion, politics, commerce, people, and history. In a book that Elaine Scarry has praised as “unique and spellbinding,” Puchner shows how literature turned our planet into a written world.
I went into The Written World with pretty high expectations, which, as we all know, is a recipe for disappointment. Unfortunate, since the the topic is an interesting one. I like that this book covers both specific works of literature and how the influenced society as well as how the world was shaped by literature in general. I was already fairly familiar with writing and printing technologies (having studied both history and English), so the highlight of this book, for me, was a look at literature through the ages. I really liked learning about how certain books affected how we live.
One thing I noticed that is a particular pet peeve for me is that Puchner seemed a bit biased. Maybe self-promoting seems more accurate. Personally, it annoys me when historians brag about their research in their books, and I was disappointed to see that in this book. I don’t think it’s necessary – mean, he already wrote the book – and it distracted a bit from the subject.
★★★☆☆ – This book falls firmly in the “meh” category for me. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it didn’t excite me at all. Reading The Written World wasn’t particularly enjoyable, but I did learn quite a bit.
The Written World is available in bookstores now (you can grab a copy on Amazon, if you’re interested).
This book was provided to me by the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
*This post contains affiliate links, which means I may get a small commission for purchases made through this post.*