In this high season of literary festivals, it is apt to find a survey of literature through the millennia that ends cheerfully at Jaipur. In The Written World: How Literature Shaped History , Martin Puchner, a professor of literature at Harvard University, lays out a thesis that is difficult to contest: “Literature isn’t just for book lovers. Ever since it emerged four thousand years ago, it has shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth.” Taking in its sweep the invention of paper, the alphabet, movable type, etc., the book examines certain foundational texts. But this is more than a textual analysis — and as he travels across continents, Puchner manages to give his inquiry feisty shape. Beyond the recap, the book is a nudge to go about looking for foundational stories in the lay of the land and the conversations in places we visit, in the way they’ve changed lives.
There is Alexander of Macedonia, for instance, going around his campaigns to conquer Asia and making sure he kept three objects under his pillow every night: “The first was a dagger. Next to the dagger, Alexander kept a box. And inside the box, he placed the most precious of the three objects: a copy of his favourite text, the Iliad .” The dagger was to “escape his father’s fate of being assassinated”, the box had belonged to Darius, and the book because “it was the story through which he saw his campaign and life”.
In the chapter on the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and Jesus, Puchner tries to find an explanation for the emergence of these teachers, for how each of these pivotal figures had in common the fact that “they did not write”: “Instead they insisted on gathering students around them and teaching them through dialogue, talking face-to-face.”
And after he has written about the first great novel in world literature, more than a thousand years ago, The Tale of Genji by a Japanese woman (Murasaki Shikibu), about One Thousand and One Nights , about the Gutenberg revolution, he introduces Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (of Don Quixote ) as “the first modern author”: “It was with Cervantes that the features of modern authorship, from the printing press and a market for literature to ownership, plagiarism, and literary piracy, came together as never before.”
Once something resembling modern publishing got underway, familiar anxieties would wrack the reading public. Were popular romances suitable reading? Were novels addictive? In fact, if you are of a certain age, you’d understand when Puchner reminds the reader that the “suspicion about novels has disappeared only recently”, as anxieties about impressionable brains being dulled and attention spans being shrunk have moved to screens, with video games and social media being seen as the new intoxicants. What’s next, Puchner asks, “Will there be a time when we will look back at the Internet with nostalgia the way many now look back longingly at the age of the novel?”
The most riveting portion on the power of storytelling is on Derek Walcott, the West Indian poet who won the Nobel Prize in 1992 and passed away a year ago. Based on a visit to Walcott’s home in St. Lucia in 2011 to discuss his epic poem Omeros, Puchner takes the post-colonial effusion of writing to its extreme to explore how a society’s first foundational texts come about in our day and age: “Unlike many other former colonies with ancient literary traditions, St. Lucia had little literature before Walcott’s works. With the native population wiped out within two centuries after the arrival of European colonists, and the forced importation of slaves from Africa to work the sugar plantations, the island’s purpose was agricultural, not cultural. Walcott was, for all intents and purposes, the island’s first writer of note… [He] had managed to single-handedly write his postcolonial nation into world literature.”
Being in St. Lucia to meet the great writer is its recommendation; at the plantation where Puchner is staying, the manager offers him free drinks when he hears of the appointment. In the capital, Castries, locals have refused to call the central square by its British-given name Columbus Square, and name it after Walcott, who had managed the feat of translating “a place, a culture, and a language into literature for the first time”.
Stopping at Jaipur
These travels through history and canons come to a stop at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The year is 2014, and the gathering is still being interrogated for its handling of the proposed visit of Salman Rushdie (you can count on JLF to reflect the freedom-of-expression battle of the moment, with the Central Board of Film Certification chief withdrawing himself from attendance now in 2018, after the Karni Sena’s violent threat-making). But Puchner’s takeaway is all good, this enthusiasm for literature among the tens of thousands gathered is a good antidote to worries about “the future of reading and writing”. Literature will continue to draw us into new communities and conversations, no matter what new anxiety may take over the publishing and reading public.