The world is shaped by books, and human history by texts sacred and profane: so this thoughtful treatise by the general editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature.
“Literature isn’t just for book lovers,” writes Puchner (English and Comparative Literature/Harvard Univ.; The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy, 2010, etc.), after opening with a thesis that isn’t quite novel but bears thinking about nonetheless: we gain much of our sense of history, morality, ethics, and religion through works of the imagination. Thus it’s no surprise that the astronauts who landed on the moon in 1969 couched their expressions of wonder in the words of the Bible or that Alexander the Great patterned his wars against the backdrop of the Homeric epics (“he wanted to meet Darius in a traditional battle and defeat him in single combat, the way Achilles had met and defeated Hector”). Sometimes, Puchner wanders into gods-for-clods territory, and his take is a little old-fashioned in its mistrust of technology and hints of disdain for mass culture of the Harry Potter variety; still, it’s all to the greater good of recognizing the significance of literature and its study. The book provides a nice collection of oddments of the bibliophilic nature, fitting neatly alongside works by Nicholas Basbanes and Alberto Manguel: it’s illuminating to know that the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal was once an accountant and “realized that his store of knowledge was useful only if it was organized,” giving birth to the world’s first known scheme of library classification; it’s also well to recognize that we know so much more about the Heian court of medieval Japan than about almost any other government of the time thanks to The Tale of Genji. In mounting a learned and, yes, literate defense for literature as an instrument of mind and memory, Puchner also argues against literary fundamentalism, allowing texts to be seen as living things and allowing “readers of each generation to make these texts their own.”
A lucid entertainment for the humanists in the audience.