Why do some texts endure and become classics, while others disappear without a trace? This was the question I asked myself when I wrote The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization. I found fascinating survival strategies, different ways in which texts inspired readers from kings and generals to priests, entrepreneurs, revolutionaries, and astronauts. Their efforts turned the earth into a planet suffused with literature—a written world. Gathered here, the following texts exhibit those survival strategies and the readers who saved them.
The Iliad by Homer
The Greeks were taught to read and write by studying Homer, and nowhere was this more consequential than when Aristotle introduced a young Alexander the Great to Homer’s Iliad. That story, of how the Greeks conquered the Asian city of Troy hundreds of years earlier, made such an impression on Alexander that he decided to re-enact it. He assembled an army and crossed into Asia, where his first stop was Troy. Taking Troy without a battle, he kept going until he had conquered large parts of Asia, easily outdoing the deeds of Homer’s heroes. They were on his mind throughout his conquest because he took his copy of the Iliad, prepared and annotated by Aristotle, and slept on it every single night. Through the services of a great teacher, Homer had found his ideal reader.
Homer succeeded spectacularly, but when it comes to survival, you can’t beat the Bible. It survived exile and prosecution, and even the destruction of Jerusalem. The Bible employed a new survival mechanism, one implemented by the scribe, Ezra. Insisting that the people bow to the Bible as they would to a king or god, Ezra turned it into a holy text, and thereby ensured that it would be defended, copied, and preserved. As a holy text, the Bible even spawned offspring, including Christianity and Islam, giving birth to new religions. The astronauts on Apollo 8, the first space mission to leave terrestrial orbit, read the opening of the Bible to 500 million people on earth—the first literary reading in space, and the largest live transmission in history at the time.
A short text that captured the teachings of the Buddha in vivid dialogues, The Diamond Sutra was also worshipped. But more importantly, it traveled far outside its original area of influence. Indian monks carried the sutra to China, where it was translated and brought to other parts of the Chinese cultural sphere, including Korea and Japan. In China, the success of this text was aided by two momentous new technologies: paper and print. A copy from 868AD is the oldest surviving printed text in the world.
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The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
There’s another survival strategy that is seemingly the opposite of travel and translation: to stay at home and become fully identified with your home culture. This happened with the first great novel of world literature, The Tale of Genji, written by a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese Court around 1000AD. Murasaki dared to show the workings of life at court, giving her readers unprecedented access to the inner feelings of the high aristocracy, especially of women, who were hidden away. The novel became a classic in Japan because it helped define what distinguished this island nation from its neighbors. It was only translated into Western languages in the 20th century.
Some texts survive with the unwitting help of their enemies. This was true of the Popol Vuh, the epic of the Maya in what is today southern Mexico. The book includes a creation myth, trickster twins, a ball game, and an explanation of why monkeys were created. Most copies were burnt by the Spanish who wanted to eradicate Mayan culture—the only writing culture that developed independently from Europe and Asia. To promote their own culture and religion, Spanish missionaries taught Mayan scribes the Latin alphabet. Secretly, those scribes used the Latin alphabet to preserve the Popol Vuh, hiding the transliterated book until it could emerge unharmed and find new readers hundreds of years later.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Many works of world literature are epic poems, religious texts, or fiction, but sometimes a political text obtains the status of world literature as well, which means that its fortunes are determined by the willingness of readers to enact its program. One example is The Communist Manifesto. Co-authored by Karl Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels, the text told a grand historical story based on the dynamics of class struggle. Out of that story, the authors extracted a compelling call for action. Many readers answered that call, including future revolutionaries around the world such as Lenin, Mao, and Castro. Because of them, no text of world literature has managed to change the world—for better or for worse—in so short a time.
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Many texts perish and some barely survive—but there’s a third category: texts that almost weren’t written in the first place. This is true of Anna Akhmatova’s long poem Requiem, which captures life under Stalin. Akhmatova was under such scrutiny that she could not publish her poems; she couldn’t even commit them to paper for fear they would be found when the secret police searched her apartment. Undeterred, Akhmatova composed Requiem, committed it to memory, and taught it to a group of close female friends. The friends were the faithful guardians of the poem until it could finally be published many decades later, bearing witness to a terrible time, but also to the enduring power of literature.
Featured Illustrations: Alessandro Cripsta; Author Photo: © Gretjen Helene