Reading literature in a time of climate emergency can sometimes feel a bit like fiddling while Rome burns. Yet, at this turning point for the planet, scientists, policymakers, and activists have woken up to the power of stories in the fight against global warming. In Literature for a Changing Planet, Martin Puchner ranges across four thousand years of world literature to draw vital lessons about how we put ourselves on the path of climate change – and how we might change paths before it's too late.
From the Epic of Gilgamesh and the West African Epic of Sunjata to the Communist Manifesto, Puchner reveals world literature in a new light – as an archive of environmental exploitation and a product of a way of life responsible for climate change. Literature depends on millennia of intensive agriculture, urbanization, and resource extraction, from the clay of ancient tablets to the silicon of e-readers. Yet literature also offers powerful ways to change attitudes toward the environment. Puchner uncovers the ecological thinking behind the idea of world literature since the early nineteenth century, proposes a new way of reading in a warming world, shows how literature can help us recognize our shared humanity, and discusses the possible futures of storytelling.
If we are to avoid environmental disaster, we must learn to tell the story of humans as a species responsible for global warming. Filled with important insights about the fundamental relationship between storytelling and the environment, Literature for a Changing Planet is a clarion call for readers and writers who care about the fate of life on the planet.
Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He is a prize-winning and bestselling author whose books include The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate and The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization. He is the general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"A stirring manifesto, and Pucnher's arguments are impressive. He effectively inspires fresh ways of reading, and climate-minded bookworms, especially, will find plenty to savor."
– Publishers Weekly
"This cogent, passionate text argues for a comprehensive reenvisioning of our relationship with the natural world to mitigate the accelerating climate crisis. [...] [Literature for a Changing Planet is a] challenging, important work of literary criticism [that] stretches our ideas of what it is to be human and where we fit in the natural world. "
– Foreword Reviews
"In this eloquent and heartfelt book, Martin Puchner advocates 'stories for the future' of a world imperiled by wrenching environmental changes – changes that have been deepened by the stories people have always told themselves about the world and our place in it. Ranging from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Communist Manifesto and environmental fiction, Literature for a Changing Planet is itself a manifesto for a world literature adequate to a world in crisis."
– David Damrosch, Harvard University
"A mesmerizing account of what humans have done to the planet, and what we might yet do to avert disaster. Martin Puchner's erudition, passion, and precision are never more gloriously on display. Literature emerges here as almost a force of nature, exacerbating climate change but also suggesting a way out, claiming a future other than extinction."
– Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University
"In this powerful, lucid, and urgent study, Martin Puchner argues for the necessity of narratives, with brilliant readings of the earliest epics, and shows that the sharing of stories is essential if we are to confront climate change. World literature and the survival of the planet are deeply intertwined. A necessary book."
– Laura Marcus, University of Oxford
"Martin Puchner has written an urgent and powerful call to arms. Literature for a Changing Planet is a bravura performance. Part manifesto, part work of advocacy, and part history of world literature, it combines lively examples of ecocritical reading with practical methods for putting environmentalism at the heart of the study of literature, in a way that is both challenging and accessible."
– Matthew Bell, King's College London
"This is the first distinctive world literary history of the environment, brilliantly told through the sheer power of stories. Taking on climate change, Martin Puchner makes a compelling case for reading environmentally to animate and nurture awareness of collective human responsibility. Whether you are an environmental scientist studying the Himalayas or a reader of world literature, this scintillating book is for you."
– B. Venkat Mani, University of Wisconsin–Madison
"Moving effortlessly between grand narratives and the fine grain of literature and history, Literature for a Changing Planet offers a beautiful, world-oriented perspective as it introduces provoking and inspirational ideas that will help shape literary studies in the Anthropocene."
– Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, Aarhus University, Denmark