The power of the written word

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Why do we read? And more important, why do we read literary books. Most CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies around the world read around 60 and more books a year. Many of the books they read are fiction books. 

In his book THE WRITTEN WORLD: The Power of Stories To Shape People, History, Civilization, Martine Puchner says that it would be impossible to imagine a world without literature because such a world would almost be impossible to imagine. He says that in a world without literature: “ ...our sense of history, of the rise and fall of empires and nations would be completely different. Most philosophical ideas would never have come into existence, because the literature that gave rise to them wouldn’t have been written. Almost all religious beliefs would disappear along with the scriptures in which they were expressed...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.”

This 412-page book was published by Random House in 2017; and, every page is worth reading. After my college years, I gradually dropped my habit of reading fiction. My usual reading fare is predominantly non-fiction especially in areas of business, history, geopolitics, economics and technology. But THE WRITTEN WORLD has revived my interest in literature. This is how the publishers described this monumental work:

“ In this groundbreaking book, Martin Puchner leads us on a remarkable journey through time and around the globe to reveal the powerful role  stories and literature have played in creating the world we have today. Puchner introduces us to numerous visionaries as he explores sixteen foundational texts selected from more than four thousand years of world literature – from the Iliad to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels- and reveals how writing has inspired the rise and fall of empires and nations, the spark of philosophical and political ideas , and the birth of religious beliefs. Indeed, literature has touched the lives of generations and changed the course of history.

At the heart of the book are works, some long-lost and rediscovered, that have shaped history and civilizations: the first written masterpiece the Epic of Gilgamesh; Ezra’s Hebrew Bible; the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and Jesus; and the first great novel in world literature, The Tale of Genji written by a Japanese woman known as Murasaki. Visiting Baghdad, Puchner tells of Scheherazade and the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, and in the Americas we watch the astonishing survival of the Maya epic Popol Vuh. Cervantes, who invented the modern novel, battles pirates, both real (when he is taken prisoner) and literary (when a fake sequel to Don Quixote is published). We learn of Benjamin Franklin’s pioneering work as a media entrepreneur, and follow the rise of influence of the Communist Manifesto. We visit Troy, Pergamum and China, and we speak with Nobel laureates Derek Walcott in the Caribbean and Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, as well as the wordsmiths of the oral epic Sunjata in  West Africa.”

There is a fascinating two-page Timeline of the WRITTEN WORLD, mapping the 29 most important events in the history of literature. It begins with the first Tales of Gilgamesh in cuneiform writing at around 2100 BCE in today’s Iraq. It ends in the year 2008 when Harry Potter becomes a global bestseller and franchise.

In the book, Puchner includes certain inventions related to writing like writing technologies, the printing press, and the book itself; and, how these inventions have shaped religion, politics, commerce and history.

Puchner devoted only nine pages or so to a critical topic which I think deserves another book. Toward the end of his book, he includes a section with the title A New Revolution in Writing Technologies and ends the book with a short narrative he calls The New and the Old. 

He traces the roots of the current revolution in writing technologies to two interlocking inventions. He says: “Personal computers and computer networks have changed everything from how literature is written to how it is distributed and read. It is as if paper, the book and print had merged all at the same time.”

Modern technologies offer major challenges for publishers and writers. For example, authors now can use apps to produce books and market them directly to customers via Amazon and similar sites. This can pose a serious problem for publishers. Computers can make the work of authors easier by allowing them to erase and add words, move whole sections and revise entire documents with ease. But now that everyone can become a writer and find readers through social media, legitimate authors are worried that they will become mere content providers. But Puchner ends with this fascinating observation:

“...the more I see the past in the present. The 140 characters of Twitter are perhaps crude versions of the short poems with which the Heian court communicated at the time of Genji and Lady Murasaki, and romances have made a comeback as bestsellers on electronic self-publishing platforms, which displeases any number of modern authors writing in the tradition of Cervantes...Oral storytelling has returned as well, as you well know if you are listening to these words on an audio device.”

Today, the world population is growing but literacy rates are increasing globally. More writing is actually being done by more people; and, more books are being published and distributed whether through paper or electronic devices. Martin Puchner ends his book with this final observation: “We stand on the verge of a second great explosion – the written world is poised to change yet again.”

Creative writing classes for kids/teens and adults

Young Writers’ Hangout on June 23, July 7 and 21, August 4 and 18 (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone sessions). Online Writing for Adults with Tarie Sabido on June 30 (1:30 pm-4:30 pm). All classes at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration contact 0945-2273216 or [email protected].

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Email: [email protected].

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