How the written word shaped the written world

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The Written World: How Literature Shaped History. By Martin Puchner. Random House; 448 pages; $32. Granta; £14.99.

“IN THE beginning was the Word…” That stirring opening of the Gospel of St John could easily serve as the thesis of Martin Puchner’s “The Written World”, an episodic history of human civilisation as shaped by and told through its literature.

Mr Puchner, a professor at Harvard University, places the written word at the very heart of things, bringing scribes and scribblers out from the shadows and giving them their moment in the sun. When discussing Alexander’s astounding conquests, the author has far less to say about his innovative use of cavalry than about the fact that he carried around with him a text of Homer’s “Iliad”, a book that goaded the great Macedonian to surpass the achievements of his hero Achilles. Recounting the transformative impact of Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and Jesus, Mr Puchner chooses to…Continue reading

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