7000 Wonders

7000 Wonders

ArticleKey#8: The Tale of Genji. Part I - Civilizational Books

Edward Porper

Edward Porper

3 min read

Finding a perfect adjective to describe books is a challenge that necessitates a compromise - and the chosen adjective will inevitably determine how the list of qualifying books would look. Lists shaped by such adjectives as “entertaining”, “inspiring”, “groundbreaking” or, say, “enlightening” are likely to be strikingly different (either completely independent of each other or, at best, partially overlapping). If asked to name “famous” books, one would find it difficult not to mention the Bible (both the Old and the New Testaments) and the Quran - two books a vast majority of people heard of, many of those people being passionate about one or the other. The Bible is also culturally significant, as it inspired many a masterpiece of European literature, music and visual arts. Last but not least, at the time of their creation, both books were socially significant, too - simply due to the fact that they were _written_. As very few people of the ancient world knew how to write, those who did, belonged to their societies' intellectual, spiritual and, possibly, economic elite - and they attempted to guide their fellow citizens by clearly spelling the good and the evil thus providing high moral standards, often wrapped into entertaining stories average people could relate to and easily remember. (As an aside, there is an opinion that both books were directly written or dictated by a supreme deity but this possibility lies outside this article's scope). However, as centuries passed, it was the prescriptive nature of the two books that brought about problems, controversies and, eventually, bloodshed - simply because the world had changed but the texts had not.

The problems, associated with the prescriptive nature of the major religious books, help to shift attention to a different kind of literature known as “literary monuments” (in terms of this entry's title, “civilizational books”). They include Scandinavian sagas, Western European “songs” (such as "Song of Roland" or “Song of the Nibelungs”), Indian epics “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana” and similar descriptive text relating to crucial moments of the respective country's history. By educating without demanding, such books are able to concentrate on pure storytelling, and highlight the qualities most cherished by the nation as a whole, thus revealing what might be called “the soul of that nation”. Arguably, reading a literary monument created in a certain country, is the quickest and most efficient way to grok its essence at the time the book in question was written - and possibly, long thereafter. At least, that seems to be the case when it comes to a mammoth 1,216-pages-long Japanese book titled “The Tale of Genji”. It doesn't hurt that the book was written by Shikibu Murasaki, a high-ranked court lady who knew her subject inside out - and that, written in the 11th century AD, it became the first novel in the history of humanity.