The Written World: review

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. It’s available now; RRP $32.99.

The premise of this book is to examine how literature has shaped history – in fact, not just literature itself, but also the inventions that have facilitated the dissemination of literature around the world throughout history. It “offers a new and enticing perspective on human history,” according to the blurb.

Some of the ideas in the book are really interesting (can you tell where this review is going?). The first chapter, about Alexander and his obsession with the stories of Troy, offer quite an intriguing (although I don’t think new) insight into one of the things driving that man to go and conquer so much land. However, even if all the chapters were individually interesting, it doesn’t feel like there’s an overarching connection between them. Yes there’s the idea of literature (more on that in a bit), but the ways in which literature has impacted on people is vastly different, and Puchner doesn’t seem to try to find commonalities – or draw out the differences in any way. And then it jumps to chapters about technology, which I’m certainly interested in but they seem even more disconnected. Additionally, there’s way more emphasis on retelling stories, like that of Troy or Gilgamesh, than I had expected; it feels quite unnecessary when the specifics of a story aren’t important to the history that the book should be focusing on.

There are other issues, too. For instance, there are grand generalisations for instance about “scribes” and their roles and attitudes; and then there’s the bit where Puchner presents a short biography of the biblical figure Ezra… and then admits that it’s just one possible version of his life. But probably the most egregious is the fact that there is no effort to define literature. And that’s a serious problem. For me, ‘literature’ is fiction, and it’s a value judgement; you can’t consciously set out to write literature (we can have a fight about this if you like). Anyway: Iliad? Sure. Epic of Gilgamesh? No problem. The Tale of Genji? Haven’t read it but given its status, happy to accept it. The Bible? well… ok, I can see how that works. Anything written by Martin Luther? The Mayan codices? Ben Franklin’s newspapers and letters, The Communist Manifesto? Uh, I think not. And does it have to be written? Play scripts aren’t really intended to be read, for example; so there’s a whole issue with the chapter on enscribing oral traditions. So… what ties these together? Puchner doesn’t bother to tell us.

Yet more problems: there’s a chapter on Goethe that alleges to be about world literature as an idea, but it doesn’t develop that concept in the slightest, just talks about Goethe. The last chapter has an incredibly snobby attitude towards Harry Potter that’s remarkable for not being that remarkable. Apparently HP merchandising is “out-of-control” (p332) and… somehow that takes away from it being literature? Or something?

Apparently at some point Puchner’s editor said that he should add more of himself to the text, and I have to disagree with that decision here. Sometimes it works – Bethany Hughes’ reminiscences about being in Istanbul were charming – but here they just come across as indulgent; not helped by sometimes being irrelevant.

Some choice quotes that bugged me: “Nothing is more familiar to us than a rabbi holding a scroll…” (p56). You what? Also, on that same page: he calls it the Hebrew Bible. Dude.

Here’s a minor one: people using framing narratives as in One Thousand and One Nights: lots of people have used this idea, “from Chaucer to Boccaccio” (p134). Mate. Boccaccio died first, but also, they lived in the same century. That’s like saying “there’s been some good Australian musicians, from John Farnham to Jimmy Barnes!”

In the chapter about the Popol Vuh and writing in the Mayan culture, Puchner refers to the people being invaded by Pizarro, Cortes and their cohorts as “Indians” (chapter 8).

Hey authors, your job’s really easy right? “It’s not such a terrible job, being an author. You do some research, come up with characters, shape a plot that unfolds central themes and ideas. Once you’re done, you find a publisher, who in turn finds a printer…” (p193). Oh my. And apparently the American Declaration of Independence influenced the proclamation of independence in Haiti… by way of the French Revolution, which Puchner neglects to mention. Goethe talking to his friend about how excellent Chinese novels were, and the latter is amazed: Puchner comments: “One sympathises: Who wants to read thousands of Chinese novels?” (p235). OH MY WORD. DUDE.

The take away here is: great idea, average to occasionally poor execution. I was sad.

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