Photo credit: Gretjen Helene
In the early '90s, I found myself on Mount Athos, an island in northern Greece that belongs to the Orthodox Church and is closed to tourists and female mammals — including human ones. As a male and a Catholic, I knew I could obtain a pilgrim's pass if I indicated that I was planning to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Since I wasn’t, I found another way, through a teacher I knew in Thessaloniki. I took a rickety ferry to the island, along with a handful of black-robed, bearded monks. Once there, I hiked from ancient monastery to ancient monastery, enjoying the feeling of being in a real-life Name of the Rose
Since I wasn’t converting to anything, I avoided conversations with fellow pilgrims, but I did otherwise try to blend in. I attended early morning services and bowed my head reverently when meeting monks on the road or in horse-drawn carriages (there were also no cars). I even hiked up Mount Athos to pay homage to a hermit.
My visit coincided with Lent, which meant that there was very little food to be had, and I was hungry the entire time. Once, I snuck into a kitchen where a kindhearted monk gave me an extra helping of fish soup . As I was eating, he explained to me the theory of the icon in Eastern Christianity and recited passages from the New Testament. My classical Greek was extremely poor, but I could make out perhaps 20 percent of the koine (Common) Greek, the slightly simpler form of Greek used by the compilers of the New Testament. (For the Old Testament, the Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made by Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria.) The monasteries, the icons, and Greek scripture provided me with a window into early Christianity, which I knew little about but whose antiquity I found awe-inspiring.
But my most powerful experience on Athos had to do with a private act of veneration. I had brought with me a copy of a book I had come to worship: James Joyce’s Ulysses
. Since I was hungry most of the time, I noticed right away the prevalence of food in the novel, especially in the chapters revolving around Leopold Bloom, who makes breakfast, goes shopping, has lunch, and watches others wolf down their food, slightly censorious of their sloppy table manners. It only made me hungrier, and nauseated.
None of these measures could prevail against the ultimate triumph of [Ulysses]. When Marilyn Monroe was photographed reading it, the Church knew that the game was over.
Without food, cars, or women, Athos had little in common with turn-of-the-century Dublin, but it proved to be the perfect place for reading Ulysses
. The main target of the novel is not sloppy eaters but Christianity. This was what had first drawn me to Ulysses
, its ambition to dethrone sacred texts. It is not what modern novels usually do. To accomplish this task, Joyce reached far back into literary history, looking for a non-Christian tradition to draw on. His choice fell on Homer
. With Homer’s help he created a modern text radically different from scripture, yet rivaling its ambition to provide a comprehensive view of the world. Surprisingly, Joyce succeeded. The Church, recognizing the rivalry, reacted promptly by putting Ulysses
on the Index of Forbidden Books. Joyce’s native Ireland banned the book as well, as did the United States, but none of these measures could prevail against the ultimate triumph of this novel. When Marilyn Monroe was photographed reading it, the Church knew that the game was over.
Since I was not Marilyn Monroe, and I was on Mount Athos, I kept Ulysses
hidden and made sure that no fellow pilgrim caught me reading it. To be sure, the Irish Catholic Church is a far cry from the Greek and Russian Orthodox Church of Mount Athos, but I nevertheless felt that I was reading a modern book that had declared war on the very texts to which this entire island was dedicated.
The strange but powerful experience of reading Ulysses
on Mount Athos stayed with me for many years, and I kept mulling over questions that emerged from it, above all why we worship texts. We’re so used to a world in which religions are based on scripture, not only Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — the “religions of the book” — but also Buddhism and Hinduism, that we forget that text worship is far from natural. When did it begin? And why did modern authors emerge to challenge ancient literature?
These questions ultimately led me to write The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization
. I became intrigued with the moment when the scribe Ezra returns from Babylonian exile to Jerusalem and holds up the Torah as an object of worship, perhaps the first time that humans venerated a text in this way. I followed the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek — and ultimately into modern languages such as English and German — and tracked down the first modern authors who competed with older texts.
While I was trying to piece together the story of literature, I kept encountering something seemingly unrelated: writing technologies. More and more I came to recognize that the material of writing, from clay to papyrus and from parchment to paper, played an important role in introducing new writing formats such as the tablet, the scroll, and the book, while other breakthroughs, above all print, led to new forms of reading and writing, as Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, a newspaper man, knew very well. And these changes in writing technologies caused changes in storytelling.
We should know this better than any generation before us, since we’re experiencing a technological revolution that is already changing the function of literature before our very eyes. I have taught Ulysses
for 20 years and only in the last five or six years have I felt that it is losing its pride of place. Ulysses
is a text fully premised on the format of the book, on modern print authorship, and on a dedicated reading public. Now, for the first time, teaching this book feels like a trip into a bygone era, the era of print. What will replace it?
In the past, technological change took decades, even centuries, to bring about new forms of literature. We may not be around for the full consequences of our revolution to make themselves felt. All we can see are glimpses of the new world of writing that is taking shape around us. But what we can say for sure is that the written world is bound to change yet again.
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is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His prize-winning books range from philosophy to the arts, and his bestselling six-volume Norton Anthology of World Literature
and HarvardX MOOC (massive open online course) have brought 4,000 years of literature to students across the globe. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization
is his most recent book.