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story behind the book | kate tuttle

Stories that form the DNA of a culture

david wilson for the boston globe

As a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard, Martin Puchner has built a life and career around books and stories. But there are some tales whose influence exceeds the norm. “Foundational texts,” Puchner said, “are texts that become reference points for an entire culture. They often will, in some way or another, answer really fundamental questions about where we come from, why are we here, why are we here at this place on the globe rather than another place? They create a kind of cultural DNA.”

In “The Written World,” Puchner examines 16 such texts, spread over 4,000 years and around the globe. These are the books, he said, that “give you a very deep understanding of an entire culture.” Beyond their literary significance, he added, he wanted to look at how texts survive and spread — in particular, the technologies that enable them to be distributed and read widely.


“In a way that was the primary motivation for the book,” said Puchner, who also serves as general editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature. “That intersection of storytelling and writing technologies, that’s the throughline, really.” As we grapple with what the Internet means for the written word, he added, he wanted to look at earlier moments of technological revolution, from the invention of paper to the printing press.

“If you introduce changes to how we communicate in writing, it’s a really crucial part of who we are and what culture is, and politics and art and religion,” he said. “So there’s always huge anxiety, but there’s also opportunity. New technologies tend to lower the cost of literature, and that means new people can enter the literary world. There are new readers and new stories. And that’s got to be an important and ultimately good thing.”


Puchner will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at the First Parish Church, 1446 Mass. Ave., Cambridge.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at