Zachary Davis: "Sometimes I try to imagine a world without literature."
That is how Martin Puchner’s 2018 book, The Written World, begins.
A world without literature. It’s hard to imagine.
We’d lose novels, sure. We’d lose Hamlet, and Moby Dick, and Harry Potter. But we’d also lose the philosophies, politics, and religions of today—because these all grew out of literature. There would be no sacred texts, no newspapers, no TV shows.
"Literature isn’t just for book lovers," Puchner concludes. "Ever since it emerged four thousand years ago, it has shaped the lives of most humans on planet earth."
Welcome to Writ Large【本课程英文版名称，为喜马拉雅官方自制】, a podcast about how books change the world. I’m Zachary Davis. In this show, I talk to scholars about the books that shaped the world that we live in today.
In this episode, we’re taking a broader view and learning how technologies of writing have shifted the power balance and shaped civilizations.
New Writing Technologies
Martin Puchner: New writing technologies always reconfigure power. They don't get rid of power, but they reconfigure power. So you always have to see where does the power go.
Zachary Davis: That’s Martin Puchner, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard and the author of the book, The Written World.
In the book, professor Puchner looks back at the moments in history when new technologies changed the way that humans communicate with written words.
Martin Puchner: Some of these moments have had to do with actual writing technologies. For example, the invention of the alphabet, the invention of paper in China, the first invention of print in China, and then the reinvention of print in northern Europe.
And in each case, you can really see how fundamental, how revolutionary these technological changes are. Often they have to do with the fact that these new technologies radically lower the cost of literature.
And as we know from other spheres of life, once you lower the cost of something significantly really interesting things, new things happen.
How Books Affect Powerful Readers
Zachary Davis: How would you say the books change the world?
Martin Puchner: The first and in some sense most obvious one is that they change through readers by appealing, especially, to powerful readers. The very first chapter in the book is about Alexander the Great, arguably one of the people who really changed the face of the world and of history.
And so I started to think about what motivated him. And it became very clear very soon that the answer was Homer's Iliad. He carried a copy of the Iliad on his Asian campaign, and he didn't just carry it. He basically saw his Asian campaign through the eyes of the Iliad.
And there are many ways of seeing that in effect, based on the existing sources. One is that the first place he goes to when he crosses the Hellespont into Asia Minor is that he stops at Troy, which has no military importance whatsoever, and he starts basically to reenact scenes from the Iliad.
And he continues to see himself as Homer's Achilles throughout his Asian campaign. And he sleeps, you know, next to the, his copy of the Iliad every night. And so this, for me, is sort of a perfect example of literature shaping history. Not necessarily. You know, for good or ill, this is there's nothing we can't be too sort of romantic about it, but certainly shaping it. There's no doubt about that.
Zachary Davis: It sounds to me like a part of what's going on with powerful readers reading texts is they're incorporating scripts or they're they're using these texts to build narratives and structures for how to think about their own life. So they both inspire action, but they partly provide a framework for action.
Martin Puchner: Right. These texts aren't just any texts that they happen to read. They are important—I call them foundational—texts like, for example, Homer's Iliad.
Everyone who learned how to read and write in the Greek speaking world did so by studying Homer as sort of a textbook, So these are scripts that in some sense tell entire cultures where they come from.
They have certain ethical systems and also tell individuals to put themselves into these larger entities to write themselves into or to read themselves into history.
How We Mingle with the Past through Books？
Zachary Davis: I mean, it's a kind of layering, right, that all of literature builds on the literature that comes before, mingling with history. Real bodies, engaging with the dead, thinking about their posterity. It's kind of extraordinary.
Martin Puchner: It is extraordinary. And this is you know, it's one of these very basic effects of writing that you write something and that you know that you're addressing the future, in some sense that you will be read by the future.
And reading, you know, that you're somehow conversing with the past. The Assyrian king Ashurbanipal when he comes across the epic of Gilgamesh, it's just amazed by the antiquity of this text and that he's in touch with these old voices.
And he says that these texts that they come from before the flood, which basically is a way of saying that from ancient, ancient history. And that's part of the appeal and power of writing it. It really creates a different sense of time, in some sense.
Zachary Davis: Amazing, so books can change the world through powerful readers. Is there anything more that can illuminate that impact?
How Books Affect Individuals？
Martin Puchner: Well, we were just talking about the fact that it's not just any texts that appeal to these or that savvy rulers use. To put it that way. But it's not just these individual texts.
It's also the entire educational system that often revolves around these texts. I think that there's a real sort of literary infrastructure. I call it.
And so Greece, again, is a good example because there, literacy spreads in part because this is where the alphabet really takes off and that lowers not the cost—well, indirectly, also the cost—but really the ease with which you can access reading and writing.
And that, again, leads to many changes. There's even begins to be a kind of private trade in books. Private individuals rather than just kings can collect books and in some sense accumulate forms of knowledge for the first time. So there's a lot that happens around the whole infrastructure of literature.
Zachary Davis: So one way to think of this maybe is text create systems or cultures that individuals get embedded in. And in some ways, you can't think outside of one's own, you know, the system that you're in.
Martin Puchner: Yeah, exactly.
How Books Give Power to Individuals？
Zachary Davis: How do books change the world through less powerful readers?
Martin Puchner: That's the modern part of the story, I think a story we are more, in some sense, familiar with because it is part of our, perhaps slightly romantic conception of the literary author who is removed from power, who was not part of a court system or a state bureaucracy, but who is a lone individual and who writes back at power.
So this is finally the separation of, if you will, of the state and the writer. And you have a whole tradition, then, of dissident writers who write against the state.
Zachary Davis: And in the romantic vision, I think even though they may be politically or militarily weak, they have a kind of strength or power through speaking truth.
That the words have power because they move readers' hearts in particular ways. Is that how it's often perceived, the strength or the power of a public intellectual?
Martin Puchner: My analysis would be more systemic in some sense—that these are writ— because of the democratization of writing technologies, is that you can have someone who is at or removed from power, usually not totally disconnected from it, but at a certain remove from power, who manages to wield these technologies.
And then you have new kind of new social formation of writers and readers, a new relation between writers and readers. And it's that new relationship that I think is crucial.
And yes, of course, these are brilliant writers and they manage to do something unusual with words. But I think just focusing on that technique is too narrow an analysis.
You have to really look at the wider field of how writing technologies allow readers and writers to be connected and a kind of power formation to emerge from that connection.
How Stories Create Different Worlds for Us？
Zachary Davis: So in our show, we're very interested in how ideas change our possibilities, both as individuals and as wider cultures. And so in some ways, ideas can be on the surface and its rhetoric and you're reading philosophical treatises.
The other is even the author may not be aware of the world that they're transmitting. As a researcher, a scholar of the word, how do words shape us? How do they shape their writers? This great pageant of influence, how does it work?
Martin Puchner: Yeah, I think stories are crucial in part because, as you say, they don't just hit you over the head with a new idea, but embed these ideas in a richly imagined world.
And so you are you've been you read a text. You're not just influenced by some pet theory a character may be peddling, but you're much more influenced really by the kinds of world that is being created.
What kind of rules does this world follow? A story always has sort of an implicit sense of causality. What drives the story forward? Is it historical forces? Is it an individual's action? Is it accidents? Is it purposeful action? Is it the collaboration of different people to bring out a certain result?
I mean, there are maybe ten ways in which we imagine getting from A to B to C. And this is what a story does. It gives you sort of an embodied sense of that. And then into this world, you drop individuals and you see how they react to this environment.
So all of this, I think, is much more important than what an individual character may be saying.
How New Forms of Writing Influence Us？
Zachary Davis: Fantastic. OK. So we talked about its impact on powerful readers, on rulers, and we talked about books, impact on less powerful readers, less powerful writers, or at least a different kind of power, through the public and actual. Is there any other category that comes to mind for the kind of causation of change?
Martin Puchner: Yeah, I think the third one and we did touch on it is this more the sort of infrastructure, if you will, not just looking at individual writers, but to look at how the whole technology of writing is reconfigured.
Zachary Davis: I think that's what's so maybe disturbing, but also exciting right now, because we can see that suddenly there are new forms of riding that are popping up on the Internet. Old institutions of writing and authority, like newspapers of record, are being challenged.
Martin Puchner: Maybe universities are being challenged. There are all these new institutions, if you will, or centers of writing or centers of activity that are merging—like fan fiction websites and lots of other places as well.
So these broader, again, more diffuse, but I think very powerful changes are really crucial. And in writing the book, even though I have great stories of individual powerful readers and or powerless readers who become powerful, these this infrastructure story, in a way, I think is the single most important one.
Zachary Davis: Professor Puchner’s research highlights the intersections between technology, writing, and power. By taking a long view of literature, he demonstrates how recent today’s conceptions of the author really are.
The Birth of Writing and Literature
Martin Puchner: Our conception of literature, a lot of scholars who are interested in literature are really interested in the fact that often writers are sort of dissidents.
They are people who write against power. Right? That's very much part of, I think, our mystique and our hope that of what literature can do. And it does. But if you take that deep view, you realize actually for the most of these 4,000 years, writing, literature, and power were almost the same.
Zachary Davis: Writing was invented in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago, long before literature appeared. At first, it was a tool of the elite. For hundreds of years, writing was used for administrative purposes—for recording economic or political transactions. These records enabled city states to consolidate their power and to create the first territorial empires.
Martin Puchner: And it was only much later, almost as a byproduct of this use of writing, that the first great written stories, like the Epic of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia, were written down, and they too were used to create a kind of soft power, if you will, or a kind of cultural cohesion amongst an increasingly far flung set of groups that were bound together in these first territorial empires.
So, yeah, power is crucial. But for me, the main insight or the takeaway point is this: that our more recent focus on the kind of dissident writer on the writer who speaks truth to power is a very recent formation. And I think it's dangerous to project that into history. We have to grapple with the fact that for most of its history, writing and power were very closely connected.
How Printing Changed Europe
Zachary Davis: One transformative writing technology was the first European printing press, which appeared in the mid-1400s. Printing presses had already been around for hundreds of years in Asia, but this was the first moveable-type printing press in Europe, and it was the first press to use metal blocks instead of wood or clay. It was invented by Johanne Gutenberg.
Martin Puchner: Gutenberg didn't invent print. I mean, we know that there was Chinese and Korean print, but he was an entrepreneur. Basically, he saw what could be done with print. And he completely re-figured out how to like turn it into one of the first industrial assembly line production processes.
Zachary Davis: Gutenberg’s most famous printed work is the Gutenberg Bible, which he produced in 1452. But before that, Gutenberg printed indulgences—single-page documents that were said to fast-track the holder’s entrance into heaven.
Martin Puchner: You have one page. It's a Latin text. You leave the area where you write the person's name blank. And then you just can produce hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of copies of an indulgence. And you sell it. And it's like printing money.
So, in the early days, the Church felt like print was perfect for it. That it would actually bolster its power. And then the unintended or unexpected consequence set in, namely that it lost control over texts, in a sense, both the sacred text through, especially then the translations of the Bible, but also allowing an insignificant monk like Martin Luther to speak back to the Church because he had access to print.
Zachary Davis: Martin Luther was opposed to the sale of indulgences, which he claimed drew people away from the Gospel. He wrote as much in his 95 Theses.
This text, originally written in Latin, was translated into German, printed on the printing press, and distributed throughout Europe, lighting the fuse for what would become the Protestant Reformation.
How Literature Challenges Power Structure？
Zachary Davis: You're being careful to note that technologies of writing do not always challenge power. They can also be used to confirm or consolidate power. But it does seem like insofar as it lowers the cost of spreading a message or a voice or a story, it does seem to include possibly more voices into that.
Martin Puchner: But then the subsequent history is that, of course, states, especially totalitarian states, especially in the 20th century, basically were able to control print.
I have a chapter in the book about writing under Stalin, where you have Soviet dissidents who are basically forced into a pre-print and in some sense, even pre-writing a kind of mode of literature. The chapter focuses on Anna Akhmatova, the poet, who says it's like we live in a world before Gutenberg.
And in fact, in the early days of Stalin, she didn't even dare to write down her poems. She memorized them and burnt the paper and taught these, this poem to others. So it's not just a story of progress and yes, great democratization. It challenges power in the sense of the old power structure but doesn't get rid of power. It reconfigures it.
The Development of Images and Written Words
Zachary Davis: This is a good chance to get into what it sounds like your book is partly responding to, which is anxiety about moving into a post writing world.
And an image-based world, perhaps, memes, a kind of deficit of the deeper skills of reading and writing and thinking that we imagine a proper civilization should be built upon. What is your research revealed about where the written world is moving?
Martin Puchner: So I know exactly your question is something that I think we all feel in many ways. Somehow the image we live in an era of images. But again, when I looked back at the history of written words, I realized actually that I don't think it's new. I think every new writing technology has not displaced the image so much as re-configured the relation between image and written word.
The early writing system themselves, of course, were based on images, and often writing in the image went hand-in-hand. This was particularly clear in the case of the first writing system, namely cuneiform, which is on clay, and clay was used for all kinds of figure, figurative art, all of these incredibly huge reliefs, clay reliefs.
And so it's the same material you could use for writing. So you just make indentions with your little cuneiform sticks, and you sort of you have writing and image right on top of each other. The same is true in Egypt and in other early writing cultures.
The one writing technology that was more hostile to the image than all previous ones was actually print with movable type because it was an entirely combinatory letter based system and to print images, you had to basically leave space blank without writing and then add the image later.
So I think that if it seems like we are now moving from a written word to an image based culture, it's only because the last writing revolution, the print revolution tended to be a little more hostile to the image or had just on a technological level had more difficulties accommodating the image, although of course they were immediately technical solutions to it now.
But in general, I would say the image and writing often went hand in hand. So I think they have to be seen as a kind of combined system.
And of course, the Internet is also a space of writing. More texts are being written and read than at any time in human history. You know, for the first time, text has become a verb. I think that should tell us something.
What are Books Like in the Future？
Zachary Davis: Yeah, and we moderns are deeply invested in our difference from the past, and so whenever we're confronted by the continuity that threatened, we want to be the vanguard of everything new.
Martin Puchner: It's interesting if you look at today's revolution that some of these older formats are coming back for the first time in thousands of years. We are writing on tablets. If you look at images of Egyptian or Mesopotamian scribes sitting cross-legged with their tablets in their laps, they look like my students are sitting in the lecture hall.
And the other format that's come back is the scroll. The scroll was basically entirely displaced by the Roman Codex. But today, today we are scrolling down our computer screens because computers and code Texas continuous texts like scrolls rather than discrete units like the page.
Computers can, of course simulate pages, but it's really a form of the scroll and this is why we scroll down our computer screens. So it's interesting that this new revolution. And this is often the case with all revolutions kind of grabs an earlier format and form and re-mediatizes it. Remediates it in some form.
Why Should We Learn about Books？
Zachary Davis: Wonderful. So maybe to close then. Our show is a show about books. Why should people learn about books? Why does it matter? The books that have constructed our world and what would you say is that is the future of books in our culture?
Martin Puchner: Well, technically, if you talk about a book, you're talking about a certain format. Right. The Roman Codex. So I'm not sure whether the book as a format is really the crucial entity here.
For example, if the book is replaced by other formats, that's fine with me. I mean, these changes in format also bring along with them, changes in how stories get written and circulated and how they are read.
So it's not a trivial change, but it's not a change that worries me. And it will be very interesting to see how formats change and how both long forms and short forms and how the two interact, I think. So we're seeing even now a reconfiguration off of that interaction.
But I think what you mean by book is really, is a kind of metaphor or is an example of an intense engagement with a long text that requires a lot of time and effort to produce and to receive.
And that is a kind of distillation of what the kind of thinking and writing and imagination that writing enables. And I think that is an incredibly precious and important form of reflection.
It's a cultural technology that's been around for 4,000 years that's really shaped our world and that we are living through this revolution that allows us to do even more with this technology.
So I think this is something that we should appreciate, something that's really precious, but that's something that's also changing. And I think that we can't bemoan this change. I think we need to make it work and try to make the best of it. And I think there's a lot that's exciting that can be done with it.
Zachary Davis: Writ Large【本课程英文版名称，为喜马拉雅官方自制】is an exclusive production of Ximalaya. Writ Large is produced by Galen Beebe and me, Zachary Davis, with help from Feiran Du, Ariel Liu, Wendy Wu, and Monica Zhang. Music is by Blue Dot Sessions. Don’t miss an episode, subscribe today in Ximalaya app. Thanks for listening.
【英文版·推荐语】Lawrence H Summers: guided tour to the world of thought
【英文原声版01】Joyce Chaplin：Around The World in 80 Days
【英文原声版02】Gregory Nagy：The Iliad
【英文原声版03】Peter Bol：The Great Learning
【英文原声版04】Elizabeth Lunbeck: Civilization and Its Discontents
【英文原声版05】David Howell：Bushido：The Soul of Japan