Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization

Throughout The Written World, Martin Puchner’s insightful narrative also chronicles the inventions – writing technologies, the printing press, the book itself – that have shaped world religion, global politics, commerce, people, and history. Here are some excerpts:

1. "Paper made a difference.  Previously, texts in China were written on bones, strips of bamboo, or silk, all either cumbersome or expensive.  Paper, by contrast, was cheap yet durable, so that written matter could be efficiently stored and preserved.  Its smooth surface and thinness allowed much more information to be condensed into a small space, making it feasible to keep extensive records, which laid the foundation for sophisticated bureaucracies.  It was also easy to transport; indeed, some of the Chinese texts in the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas had come from more than a thousand miles away."

2. "Gutenberg was not the first to think of using movable letters and combining them to form pages that could be printed.  Just as with the pilgrim’s mirror, others had done so before him. He had long known about the relatively simple technique of carving images into wood and using them like stamps to make copies, as was routinely done in making playing cards.  As long as one didn’t care too much about quality, the same could be done with words.  Small booklets had been made this way, with awkward wooden letters allowing readers to decipher the printed words with some difficulty.

"This woodblock technique had come from the Far East via the Silk Road, which connected China to the Mongols and Uighurs, who in turn maintained trade with faraway Constantinople and thus indirectly with the rest of Europe.  In Mainz, known for long-distance trade, Gutenberg was also in a good position to hear rumors that the Chinese were now producing printed books not just by carving text page by page onto whole blocks, but also by making individual letters and then assembling them to form sentences.  Such letters were sometimes made of harder, more precise materials, including ceramic and metal alloys."

3. "The most ferocious reactionary was an Austrian by the name of Adolf Hitler, who promised to put an end to the red tide sweeping Europe.  While imprisoned for a failed coup in 1923, he wrote an autobiography that was also a campaign biography for his future political career.  Once he had seized power, he was able to foist this text on his subjects in a gigantic vanity publishing project.  At the height of Nazi rule, Mein Kampf became the most widely owned book in Germany, going through 1,031 editions totaling 12.4 million copies; every sixth German possessed a copy of Mein Kampf, with counties required to give a copy to all newlyweds."

4. "Just as The Communist Manifesto had been catapulted to the forefront of history by the Russian Revolution, so its prestige has suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Today it is once again considered outdated, as it was in the 1850s and ‘60s. In the past, the Manifesto has been able to rise again from obscurity, adjusting to new political realities. Even now, it is finding readers who feel that this text predicted our current backlash against globalization.  Be this as it may, what is certain is that The Communist Manifesto became one of the most influential texts of the modern era within a few decades of its emergence. In the first four thousand years of literature, few texts have been able to shape the history so effectively."

5. "The beginnings of the Nobel Prize had been much more modest. It had been endowed by a Swedish weapons manufacturer and inventor of dynamite who was hoping to leave a legacy in the sciences and the arts. The Swedish Academy, the body responsible for the prize, at first chose many writers who did not stand the test of time.  But thanks to a generous endowment and increasing experience, the academy developed ways of avoiding the more blatant types of favoritism as well as other pitfalls and managed to establish its prize as the single most important one in the world."

6. "The most striking feature of literature has always been its ability to project speech deep into space and time.  The Internet has supercharged the first, enabling us to send writing to any place on earth within seconds.  But what about time?  As I started using the last four thousand years of literature as a guide to the changes taking place around me, I began to imagine literary archaeologists of the future.  Will they be able to unearth forgotten masterpieces such as the Epic of Gilgamesh?

"The answer is far from certain. The endurance of electronic media over time has already emerged as a problem because of the rapid obsolescence of computer programs and formats.  If we are lucky, future historians will be able to transcode outdated data sets or reconstruct old computers to access otherwise illegible files (must as the cuneiform code had to be reconstructed in the nineteenth century).  Librarians warn that the best way to preserve writing from the vagaries of future format wars is to print out everything on paper.   Perhaps we should carve our canons into stone, as Chinese emperors did.  But the most important lesson from the history of literature is that the only guarantee for survival is continual use:  A text needs to remain relevant enough to be translated, transcribed, transcoded, and read by each generation in order to persist over time.  It is education, not technology, that will ensure the future of literature."

7. "No matter what future historians will find, they will understand better than we do just how transformative our current writing revolution will have been.  What we can say for sure is that the world population has grown even as literacy rates have risen sharply which means that infinitely more writing is being done by more people, and published and read more widely, than ever before.  We stand on the verge of a second great explosion – the written world is poised to change yet again."


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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource."

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