“The Written World” makes this grand assertion on the basis of a set of theses. Storytelling is as human as breathing. When fabulation intersected with writing, stories were empowered to propagate themselves in society and around the world as civilization-forming “foundational texts.”
Puchner opens, by way of illustration, with Alexander the Great. Under his pillow at night he had, alongside his dagger, a copy of the “Iliad.” His literary GPS, we understand. As important as the epic’s originally oral story of great conquest was the script it was written in: That too would conquer worlds. This review is printed in a variant of it.
The narrative gallops on to Mesopotamia, Nineveh, clay tablets, cuneiform and Gilgamesh. Puchner explains it all with brio. By Page 50 Ashurbanipal is a name the reader will feel able to drop knowingly into any conversation on literary matters.
In chronological procession there follow Buddha, Confucius (a notably brilliant chapter), “The Tale of Genji” (hooray, at last, for the woman author), the Mayas (a dark episode), the Gospels, Gutenberg, Muhammad, Luther, Cervantes, Goethe, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Marx and Engels, the African epic of Sunjata — on, on and on to Derek Walcott (“new nations need stories to tell them who they are,” writes Puchner) and Harry Potter (“repetitive,” alas).
The invention and spread of paper gave literature wings. So too did print and in our day, the web. Looking at his screen, Puchner wonders what foundational texts will flicker down to us.
There is a joyous personality in this book. Puchner gives more of himself to the reader than most literary historians. As a child, he confides, he was entranced by the “Arabian Nights” — only cliff-hanging bedtime stories to her husband can save Scheherazade from being a one-night queen and next morning’s bridal corpse. But who originated this bundle of tales? The question nags at Puchner. He has a dream that he describes at length. What does the dream tell him? Stop looking. Searching is futile.
Puchner describes himself, modestly, as a “teacher” (so, of course, did Confucius). In fact he occupies an endowed chair at Harvard. But he doesn’t sit on it. Fieldwork for “The Written World” takes him to every continent, digging inexhaustibly into cultures for their foundational and sacred stories. Martin Puchner’s score on RateMyProfessors.com must be sky-high. I suspect he is as enlightening at the lectern as on the page. But is he right? One thinks uneasily of other foundational texts — “Mein Kampf,” Mao’s “Little Red Book,” “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — that have exercised anything but a civilizing force. It would be nice to discuss such things with this brilliant scholar. Or dutifully listen — like Confucius’s pupils.
Abigail Williams works on a smaller scale than Puchner, although she too concerns herself with how books condition readers and their society. Her preferred method is the illustrative vignette. It makes for a lively survey. Her book, “The Social Life of Books,” appears as part of a series covering the history and culture of the so-called “long 18th century” in England. Her principal interest is the middle-class home — “a semipublic reception space” as she calls it, in a rare lapse into jargon.
She is enlightening, to take one example, when it comes to light, on how domestic candlepower (at a period when wax candles were expensive, and tallow candles nasally offensive) framed the 18th-century reading experience.
Samuel Johnson, one recalls, a ferociously unsociable reader, and blind as a bat, was constantly in danger of singeing his wig against his candle. Like the single, often feeble source of visual light, the fire in a room on a cold night created an intimate circle, as eager for bodily warmth as entertainment or instruction. As Schopenhauer said, even porcupines cluster together when it’s chilly.
The period saw a fruitful connection between the literate bourgeoisie (then a minority but growing in social power) and their reading matter. Books remained, however, prohibitively expensive and scarce. Library and cheap reprint systems had yet to evolve.
Those factors created a drive toward what Williams calls, with her favorite epithet, “sociable” consumption. Books were necessarily read aloud to a group. The single copies were typically acquired in quires (sheets) and bound by their owners (invariably male) defining them as personal property, something certified by a pompous “ex libris” bookplate. Books had an aura of hierarchy and patriarchy: the parson in his pulpit, the politician at the dispatch box, the professor on the podium, paterfamilias in his armchair.
Codes of secular decency were promulgated by Joseph Addison in his universally popular “tea table” essays: short and in themselves decent enough for an evening’s listening by mixed male, female and younger audiences. Shakespeare was rigorously clipped, so as not to bring blushes to maiden cheeks.
As any audiotape demonstrates, reading aloud is slow. “Epitomes” and “extract” volumes — especially of verse — were popular. Walter Scott, as a child, was famous for his thrilling infant recitations to groups of admiring adults. As the twig was bent, so the tree was formed. The Wizard of the North never stopped thrilling.
Sociable reading encouraged a premium on elocution. Sociable reading improved the English tongue. And the English pen. Correspondence became more fluent and stylistic over the century. There were virtuosos in the form, like Horace Walpole. (Williams’s book is in a series named after Walpole.) The manuscript diary and personal, commonplace book flourished. Williams has read dozens of them to make her points.
Sociable literacy took a variety of household forms.
Women embroidered poetic maxims into samplers while listening. Recipe books in the kitchen improved the food on the table. Pages from the almanac hung on the kitchen wall reminded the mistress of the household of holy days and holidays. “Servants’ libraries” endeavored to instill moral standards in the lower classes. The drawing room globe was the most instructional furniture in the house — invaluable during a reading aloud of “Robinson Crusoe.” In its little, domestic world, writing civilized the middle-class home.
Williams avoids Jane Austen, on the reasonable ground that a lot has already been done on her. The author of “Pride and Prejudice” wrote privately, covering up her manuscript if anyone came near. She read her finished work to a family audience. What would one not give to be among them?
The rise of the novel tilted the practice of reading toward private and speedier consumption — but not entirely. Samuel Richardson clearly expected his books to be sometimes read out loud slowly — in a male voice, often, even though the woman’s letter was his narrative vehicle. Bedroom reading is, Williams reminds us, very different from reading in the drawing room, or on public transport (the stage coach, at this period).
Williams’s book is welcome because her research and insights make us conscious of how we, today, use books. Does one, reading Salman Rushdie, “hear” him? Or do the words flash voicelessly to the brain? We habitually inscribe books with our names, to make them ours, a faint simulacrum of the 18th-century bookplate and private library. Our own “sociable” reading takes the form of the best seller, which millions of us read at roughly the same time with similar response.
Williams, in short, is to be congratulated on a book, like Puchner’s, that makes us think, while reading, about what reading is.