Ep 219 Discover ‘The Written World’ by Martin Puchner.

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In Episode 219 of So you want to be a writer: We made the list for best websites for writers in 2018! Hear some of our favourite freelance writing tips, and polish up your manuscript because the Text Prize for young adult and children’s writing is now open! We also have a two-book pack of rural fiction to give away. Discover The Written World by Martin Puchner and much more.

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Show Notes

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Shout out

ZestyZoë from Australia:

Al and Val are amazing and informative in ways that compliment each other. This podcast has kept the writing dream alive in me despite the craziness of life getting in the way. You should definitely have a listen, and I promise you won’t want to stop.

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The 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2018

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Now open: Annual Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing

Writer in Residence

Martin Puchner

​Martin Puchner, the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, is a prize-winning author, educator, public speaker, and institution builder in the arts and humanities. His writings, which include a dozen books and anthologies and over sixty articles and essays, range from philosophy and theater to world literature and have been translated into many languages.

Through his best-selling Norton Anthology of World Literature and his HarvardX MOOC Masterpieces of World Literature, he has brought four thousand years of literature to audiences across the globe.

His latest work is the acclaimed The Written World, published in 2017.

(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

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Artwork

Here is Valerie’s artwork mentioned in this episode:

Artwork by Valerie Khoo

Valerie was so inspired by Martin Puchner’s book, she felt compelled to paint it!

In the book, Martin discusses the oldest printed book in existence – The Diamond Sutra (also known as The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion) and its impact on the spread and development of language and words. Valerie says: “I was so intrigued by this and I just started painting. I knew that I wanted to represent language in some way as I’ve always been fascinated by the development of different types of languages. In this painting, I decided to depict the title of the oldest printed book in the world in binary language.

“You can view the artwork as an abstract painting and just see interesting shapes. Or you can understand it from another level as well if you take into the account that it has an actual message within the imagery.”

 

Competition

Tell us your favourite farm animal and WIN these two rural fiction books!

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Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Martin.

Martin

Thanks for having me, Valerie.

Valerie

Now your book,  The Written World: How literature shaped history, just tell us, for those people who haven’t read the book yet, what is your book about?

Martin

It’s a big picture view of world history as seen through literature. So what I want to argue is that writing technologies and storytelling intersected in a certain moment, about 4,000 years ago, and that was kind of the Big Bang of literature. This is when stories started to be written down. And this made them incredibly powerful. And that ever since, for the last 4,000 years, we’ve been living in a world suffused by literature, really shaped by literature.

And what I am exploring in this book is how this happens, which texts survived, which texts shaped our world, and how they did that. And so it’s about the intersection of different kinds of storytelling with different kinds of writing technologies.

Valerie

Now, why did you want to write this book?

Martin

Well, I think because I realised at some point that we all are living at this incredible inflexion point. That we are living at this very unusual time of revolutionary change when it comes to writing technologies. How texts are written, how they are read, how they are distributed, what formats we write these texts in. And so I wanted to look back at the prehistory of what we are living through and focus on these earlier inflexion points, like the invention of paper, or papyrus, or parchment, or the alphabet, and to see what happened at these earlier moments in order to get some kind of sense of what is happening all around us.

Valerie

Now, 4,000 years is a very long time, and lots of things and innovations and inflexion points can happen in those 4,000 years. How did you choose the ones that have ended up in this book? Or the ones that you’ve obviously deemed to be significant?

Martin

So I basically looked at moments when texts that are clearly important, I sometimes call them “foundational texts”, when they emerged, and what kind of technologies they were able to use in order to survive, in order to replicate themselves, in order to travel to different parts of the world.

So I was following these two trails. I was following these important shaping foundational texts, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Hebrew bible, Buddhist sutras, and many other texts. And then I was looking at the way in which they used writing technologies. So I was always looking at these intersections. So there are other important texts that are not as closely connected to revolutions in writing technologies, and there are some revolutionary writing technologies that took a while in order to really influence the way literature worked. And I always was looking at these at this intersection.

Valerie

Now tell me a little bit about how you got interested in this space? Is this something that you were always fascinated by as a child? How did you get into this world, back at the start of your career?

Martin

Well, I was actually not a child or teenager who read all the time. I was not super bookish, although I did read, there are certain texts that certainly stayed with me, like The Lord of the Rings. But I was not a particularly bookish person.

It was really only when I went off to college that I discovered literature in a full way, and it stayed with me ever since. And because I lived in different parts of the world, and studied various languages, I think I was always interested in a kind of approach to literature that looked not just at one national traditional, or literature from a particular region, but at different kinds of perspectives.

And so that is sort of the prehistory. And then about twelve years ago I got roped into editing one of these large world literature anthologies, The Norton Anthology of World Literature, that really spanned everything from the invention of writing to the twentieth century in a very comparative global way. And the work on that anthology really forced me, in a sense, to look at the big picture, and to see the patterns.

And during that time, I read a lot of world history. And that’s a very established genre, and some of it is more popular, and some of it is more scholarly. And then I started to look for something similar for literature. And I just didn’t find it. And at some point, I said, well, I guess I’ll have to write it myself.

Valerie

So you say in the introduction, the introduction to this book: “As I was exploring the story of literature, I became restless. It felt strange to think about the way literature had shaped our history and the history of our planet solely while sitting at my desk. I needed to go to places where great texts and inventions had originated.”

Now I have to say, I read that and I thought, I want to be him! I think there could be no greater joy than travelling the world going to where these amazing texts, fascinating inventions, occurred.

Now, tell me some timelines here. When did you start thinking about this? And then in your research and travels, did you then approach that in a structured fashion? Or did you just think, oh, I’ll just do this in my holidays? How did this all come about on a practical level?

Martin

Well, that’s a really good question. It started sort of haphazardly. I’ve always liked to travel, and I care about literature. So at some point, I started to think about the relation of these two things. How reading certain texts really makes you look at a landscape or a history of a place differently. And how going to a place, actually being there, seeing the landscape, talking to people, everything that’s entailed in travel also makes you realise things about literature that you hadn’t noticed before.

So it sort of happened at some point almost haphazardly, naturally. But then at some point I realised, oh, this is actually something that could really contribute to my writing about literature. And then I started to go about it in a little bit more of a systematic fashion.

But this is a time when I would give lectures in certain places, or have invitations. And then I would think about, is there a nearby place that could play a role in the book, where I could discover something? And not all travels made it into the book, obviously. But at some point I realised, oh, what I’ve sort of stumbled into is actually a helpful way of talking about literature, making it vivid, but also showing how it mattered.

So one example is I was very interested in the Caribbean author, Derek Walcott, who lived on the small Caribbean island St Lucia. So of course I’ve always wanted to go there and meet him and talk to him, and that was wonderful. But then on that small island I realised how basically every person I met was into Derek Walcott, had stories about Derek Walcott, was able to quote lines from poetry of Derek Walcott. And I realised the extent to which this one writer had really shaped the experience of most people on this island. And I think that was when it became clear to me how valuable and fun, of course, it can be to travel and think about how literature has really shaped places.

Valerie

So apart from meeting Derek, you would have come into contact with some very old, or particularly amazing texts in your travels. Do any stick out as something that just made you feel, you know, butterflies inside? I’m clutching my heart at the moment, if you can imagine that kind of emotion.

Martin

So, I travelled a lot around the Mediterranean, and quite a few of the texts I deal with are connected through the Mediterranean Sea. And I mean, this is not a particularly original thing to say, but going to Troy, for example, was really great since I had spent so much time thinking about Homer. And not just thinking about Homer, but thinking about how Alexander the Great was influenced by Homer, and essentially thought about Homer as he was conquering the better part of Asia. And he took his copy of The Iliad with him on his entire conquest and slept on it every night.

And so travelling to Troy, but also to the many Hellenistic cities that Alexander the Great founded in this kind of Homeric re-enactment really drove home this point that, again, how much literature had shaped this hugely influential military campaign.

And the other thing was, when you go to these ancient cities and look at these ancient ruins, at some point I realised that there are two types of buildings that were still standing, that were so much more visible than most other parts of these ancient ruins. And those were libraries and theatres. And both of these huge structures were devoted to literature; to the enactment of literature in theatres, and of course to the preservation of literature in libraries. And I just realised how much these ancient civilisations had invested in literature. And how seriously they had taken it.

Valerie

Yes. And in fact, in your book you write about – and correct me if I’m wrong – how Alexander the Great, in the city of Alexandria, one of the conditions if you were a ship that passed through Alexandria, you had to hand over or lend the city scribes all of the literature that was on your boat so that the city scribes could copy it.

Martin

Exactly.

Valerie

Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I just thought that was fascinating.

Martin

It was fascinating. And it showed how these scribes were able to take advantage of their advantageous position in this port city on the Mediterranean Sea, and how they exploited it to build the greatest library the world had ever seen.

Valerie

It’s astounding.

Martin

And the other interesting aspect of this is that there’s a rival library in Pergamum, which is now Turkey, and they realised that they were dependent on the papyrus that Egypt exported, and which was the writing material used at the time. So the librarians at Pergamum invented a better technique of creating a writing surface out of stretched animal skins, what we now call parchment pargamentum, named after that city. And that was born out of the rivalry of these two great ancient libraries – the library of Alexandria and the library of Pergamum. I like that story a lot.

Valerie

Nothing like a bit of competition, right?

Martin

Exactly.

Valerie

Another person that you write about, and I probably am pronouncing it wrong, is Ashurbanipal.

Martin

That’s very nicely pronounced. Of course no one knows exactly how he would have pronounced his own name.

Valerie

All right, so I’m going to go with Ashurbanipal. And he invented, or somehow spearheaded his own Dewey system, or some form of categorising all of the documents in his collection. Is that right?

Martin

That’s right. And he’s a fascinating figure. So this took place near what today would be Iraq. Mosul, that was so recently terribly destroyed. And Ashurbanipal, the king, was an unusual figure, because he himself knew how to read and write. It was not that common for kings to master this very difficult skill. So he had advanced literary training. He trained with one of the best scribes of the region. And this was of course Mesopotamia, the first real writing culture in the world. And so he got really interested in these texts that even for him were already ancient texts. And he started to collect them.

And as Ashurbanipal’s empire expanded, he was able to collect more and more texts, and he created a library and then created a first system of categorising different texts and thinking about what they had in common.

These were administrative texts. Some had to do with religion and divination. But his greatest possession was the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is really the first long epic foundational story, a fantastic text. And it was only because Ashurbanipal collected this text on clay tablets and collected many copies that this text survived. Or I should say, was buried when the library burnt down. And of course fire is terrible for almost all libraries, because papyrus, paper, everything burns. But not clay. Clay hardens when it is exposed to fire. So these clay tablets lay dormant in the earth for 2,000 years before they were rediscovered in the 19th century. So yes, Ashurbanipal, one of my heroes.

Valerie

Yes, absolutely. Now the other thing, one of the things that you say here is that writing began as an accounting technique. Which I think is fantastic. Because I’m absolutely passionate about writing, but I am a former accountant. So it ties in very well. Can you just explain to listeners how writing began as an accounting technique?

Martin

So it really began as a way of writing down economic transactions. And we can think of this in a very simple way. Like, I sell you three cows, and so this is now the document that codifies that. So these kinds of transactions, it was a notation system for these kinds of transactions. Contracts, you could say, or sales receipts.

And then it became more and more elaborate, and a kind of bureaucracy sprung up. And the few people who knew how to read and write, who had mastered this difficult technique, were running the first imperial bureaucracy.

So at this early stage, writing has very little to do with literature. What we would call literature was transmitted orally. There were singers and bards who remembered stories and would recite them on special occasions. But at some point, one of these accountants, Valerie, started to write down these stories that were otherwise only transmitted orally.

And that is the moment when writing technologies started for very mundane purposes intersected with storytelling, and the birth of literature is the result.

Valerie

I love it. I love it. So now, the Diamond Sutra, which is the earliest surviving printed book in the world. Can you just tell listeners what the Diamond Sutra is, and what they should know about it?

Martin

The Diamond Sutra is one of many texts that students of the Buddha wrote down in order to preserve their master’s words. Now the Buddha, much like Jesus and Confucius and Socrates, didn’t write himself. He spoke to his students, he had this live interactive relationship to his followers.

And after the Buddha’s death, the followers transmitted the things he had said, the anecdotes about their master, the wisdom of this master, orally for many generations. But at some point they started to write them down, and the result was these sutras that captured exchanges between the Buddha and his students, and observations about what it meant to be a follower of Buddha.

And these Indian Buddhist followers carried these texts further and further afield, all the way to China where they were translated into Chinese and became quite influential. And it was in China that these texts surrounding the Buddha availed themselves of these two new and incredibly important inventions. And that was paper and print.

So both paper and print were first invented in China. And they were important. Paper was important because it lowered the cost of literature. Because beforehand, writing would have been done on silk, which was very expensive, or on other natural fibres that would disintegrate very quickly. So the technique of paper really, you know, we still use it today.

And print, of course, lowered the cost of reproducing literature. Now it was still quite cumbersome, because often it wasn’t done with moveable type, so you’d have to carve an entire page onto wooden blocks, and then you could replicate this text many times. So it only made sense for texts that had many readers, texts that really needed to replicate, used to proselytise this new faith, Buddhism.

So these Buddhist texts really lent themselves to these new technologies, because there were many, many readers who wanted to read them. And the monks who had devoted their lives to these texts wanted these texts to be widely read and distributed. So this is one reason why this Buddhist sutra, the Diamond Sutra, became an early adopter, if you will, of these new technologies. And this is the earliest surviving printed text that we have today.

Valerie

Amazing.

Martin

And it’s many hundred years before Gutenberg.

Valerie

Yes. Amazing. Amazing. Now, apart from some of the text that we’ve mentioned, and some of the people that we’ve mentioned, what are some other people or cultures that have had the most significant impact on writing, or on literature?

Martin

Well, you have the great writing cultures like China or Greece or the Middle East, with the Hebrew bible. You have an explosion of literacy in Europe when the printing press gets reinvented. And I talk about the fact that, again, it’s a religious foundational text, the bible in this case, that becomes an early adopter of print in Europe. And then of course the Protestant revolution follows from that, as well. Because Martin Luther became an expert in using this new print culture that emerged in Europe.

But I also go to, if you will, more far flung places. One of the epics that I became very, very interested in was the West African Epic of Sundiata. This is an epic that like most epics, like the Homeric epics, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, commemorates the founding of a kingdom in western Africa that would have existed in the Middle Ages, and that was transmitted orally for many hundreds of years, and only written down in the twentieth century. And it was this text, I found it very moving to think about the fact that these foundational national epics don’t just emerge, didn’t just emerge in the ancient world thousands of years ago, but they are still doing so today. And there are still these written epics out there today that haven’t really made it into the world of literature, and are still waiting for that moment.

Valerie

Now, you’re a professor at Harvard, you’re an academic, and you’re very used to doing a lot of research. And in a book like this, which is very, very readable… In fact, it’s one of those books that I think my partner got very sick of me reading it because every so often I would just blurt out, “did you know that blah blah blah… insert some other interesting fact.” And then five minutes later, “did you know…?” So he was very, I think he found it fascinating, but probably could have done with a few less interruptions.

However, in a book like this which is so easy to read, I’m assuming that you had to at some point make a culling decision on stuff not to include. Because everything you research isn’t necessarily going to be the most riveting thing. You can’t include everything. Am I right?

Martin

Correct. Oh, absolutely. And it’s very hard. These choices were very hard. And there are a lot of things that didn’t make it into the book.

Valerie

So how do you make those choices? What was the parameter?

Martin

Apart from the one that I already mentioned, namely that I always was looking at intersections of important texts with technologies, I wanted to combine stories about well-known texts, like the Homeric epics, the Hebrew bible, or something like the Communist Manifesto, with lesser known texts. Such as the Epic of Sundiata from West Africa, that I just mentioned.

Or another one that I just love is the Popol Vuh, the Mayan epic. So this is an episode from the New World. And one of the things that fascinated me about the Popol Vuh is that it is the only independent literary tradition we have. Because all the other writing cultures of the ancient world developed on the Eurasian land mass. So it’s possible that the idea of writing spread from this one place in Mesopotamia to Egypt and Greece and China in indirect ways.

But we know for certain that writing was invented a second time, completely independently, in the New World, because there was no contact during that time. And that second writing culture led to the Popol Vuh, that wonderful Mayan epic.

So I wanted to combine some of these better-known texts with lesser known texts that I thought should be better known. Or the, what I consider the first great novel in world literature, the Japanese Tale of Genji, written by this extraordinary lady-in-waiting at the Heian Court around the year 1,000 of the Common Era.

And so I guess I had a kind of proselytising impulse of getting some of these texts… I mean, they weren’t completely unknown, they are all important texts. But I think especially for western readers, I wanted to make a good case for those. And so combining better known texts with lesser known texts was one additional criteria.

Valerie

Now this is a massive, massive opus. Are you already working on your next thing? Or are you recovering?

Martin

I am working on my next thing. And it is in a sense the exact opposite. Namely, it’s about something only I know about.

Valerie

What’s that?

Martin

So this is a book about a secret language, a thieves’ language that was spoken in Central Europe for a long time. From the late Middle Ages to the twentieth century. And it is a combination of German, Hebrew and Yiddish but turned into a secret language of the underground, essentially. And it’s a fascinating language. But it’s almost entirely forgotten. Almost no one knows about it, and the only reason I know about it is because my uncle was obsessed with it.

Valerie

Really?

Martin

So he was a writer, and he’s discovered it. And then he started to incorporate it into his own poetry. He even started to translate bits of world literature into this thieves’ language in order to make it a legitimate literary language.

Valerie

Wow.

Martin

And he died very early of a brain aneurysm. And when I went off to college, I went to my aunt and asked her about it. And then she gave me basically his archive of his research into this secret language. And I’ve been carrying it around with me for about 25 years, and I’ve decided now is the time to write about it.

Valerie

Wow. And do you know if any texts were written in this language?

Martin

So, it was basically only a spoken language. But there’s one group of people who wrote it down, and that was the police. Because the police started to realise that it was this thieves’ language, so they started to collect words. And in the nineteenth century they started to force some of these speakers of this language to write down essentially scenes from the underground in that secret language, and provide the key vocabulary lists. So there are some texts in this language, but they were written under duress.

Valerie

Oh my god, that is fascinating. I cannot wait for your next book to come out!

 

Martin

That’s very nice of you.

Valerie

That’s brilliant. Obviously, you have a real keen interest in language and how it has developed. How many languages do you speak yourself?

Martin

Well, I do speak a couple of languages. I grew up with German and English. I lived in Italy for a while and studied there, so I have Italian and French. And then there are some languages I studied to some extent, that I can read, dead languages like Greek and Latin. And I taught myself some Yiddish in order to better speak this thieves’ language that my uncle was so interested in. Which I kind of grew up with, in the sense that he would teach me words from that language. So I feel like I’m the last speaker, or sort of speaker of this thieves’ language. So there are some languages I studied a little bit, and others I know better.

Valerie

Wow. If you have codified it in some way, I must get my hands on it and at least we can speak it to each other then. I love languages. That would be really fun.

Martin

And no one will be able to understand us.

Valerie

That’s right! That’d be great. All right, wonderful. Look, this has been an absolutely wonderful chat. Such a fascinating book. The Written World: How literature shaped history. And I loved it. I loved it. So thank you so much for your time today, Martin.

Martin

Thank you for having me, Valerie.


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