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Thursday, February 28, 2008

World Literature

So I have decided to undertake a rather massive project. I want to organize a list and then read as much of what is contained on that list as possible. The list will consist of all the literature of the world organized in chronological order. And when I say literature I don't just mean fiction. I mean anything and everything that has been written down and preserved through the ages. That in and of itself is daunting. The most ancient texts are easy because there are so few of them that have survived the centuries. But once you get into the middle ages and cultures with writing abound it is going to become an organizational nightmare. Not only do you have the West (Greek,Latin, French, German, English language writers), but I am also searching out the Middle East. Also, at the height of the Islamic culture there was just as much if not more writing taking place in all subjects than ever in the west. And then there is the far east: China, Japan, etc. Those empires had their scholars, philosophers and writers as well. So this raises the next problem: finding readable English translations for the works. I could read them in their original languages (and for this project to have much scholarly application I probably should) but I don't think I have the time to learn all those languages as well.

Why would I want to undertake such a task? Does it have any merit? I think the list itself would have some use. (I am secretly hoping it already exists some place and I will find it in one of my searches. So far I have only found lists segregated by their respective cultures or time periods). I think that human culture is more connected than we might at first assume. I think the segregation by culture or time period is artificial to how things really work. I think that ideas, concepts, philosophies, stories, fictions, etc. travel and flow with the human populations. I think that in the past, humanity traveled and with them so did their ideas. And as such through the study of what was preserved in writing we can get a glimpse of how ideas spread about the globe. Did the idea of monotheism spring up naturally in various places, or was it brought from one to another? Or the idea of democracy? Or the way in which armies waged battles and conquered lands? I think a project like this could have many different applications even though it is going to be daunting and I doubt I will get much past the first few centuries of the common era (CE).

So far, I have listed with mostly accurate dating writings from the Greeks and Latins before the common era (BCE). I also have a start into Sumerian and Egyptian literature. The most ancient text that has survived to date appears to be "The Code of Hammurabi" followed closely by the "Epic of Gilgamesh." Both of which seem to come from a pre-Babylonian era (that is from the land of Iraq). It is five centuries before you get to Homer and the Greek classics. There are writings in Asia and Egypt that seem to come from this same era (2500-900 BCE). After 900 BCE, writing seems to begin to grow in volume. But even then each century only has a few surviving authors, thinkers or works.

And so my first insights are:
  1. Writing seems to have appeared in various cultures around the same time.
  2. The fact that more of the written record is available the further forward you move in history may stem from either or both of the following: more people are writing and/or less time has elapsed for the record to be lost.
  3. Humans feel the need to preserve what they deem as important.

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