Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His bestselling six-volume Norton Anthology of World Literature and HarvardX MOOC (massive open online course) have brought four thousand years of literature to students across the globe. His latest book, The Written World, tells the story of how literature shaped world history. Here, Martin shares what books he thinks will be talked about one hundred years from now.
I just spent years burrowing my way through four thousand years of literature, and now, upon emerging from the lower depths of history, I am supposed to predict which recent books will still be talked about a hundred years from now? As if predicting the past wasn’t hard enough.
We pick and choose from the store of literature depending on our changing needs. Take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, set in New England, which Atwood knew from her student days at Harvard. Published in 1985, this dystopian tale of a theocratic society spoke to fears associated with the rising Christian right and Ronald Reagan. Who knew that it would be relevant thirty years later, in Trump’s America? And that it would be revived by Hulu, garnering the first Emmy for a streaming platform?
New technologies will use striking tales at moments when we’re particularly dumbfounded by the world around us and desperately turn to the past for guidance. I hope that if people still read The Handmaid’s Tale a hundred years from now – and they definitely should – that they do so not because they need this story, but because they can’t believe that people were plagued by such worries in the past.
When I contemplate the future of literature, my thoughts invariably turn to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (the title is a metaphor for the ravages of time). Egan’s interlocking tales are engrossing, and she includes intriguing predictions, such as future teenagers rejecting the tattoos of their parents’ generation. Egan also imagines new forms of literature by writing the last section of her novel in PowerPoint. I don’t think we’ll have PowerPoint a hundred years from now – I sure hope it will be gone much sooner than that – but A Visit From the Goon Squad will be, at the very least, a record of how a great novelist imagined the future back in 2010. I think they’ll enjoy it.
We’re living through an unparalleled moment of technological change, and The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization was an attempt to look back and see what had happened at earlier such moments, including the invention of the tablet, of paper, the bound book, and print. Which of our stories will be seized by future technologies? I bet that Harry Potter will be among them.
We’ve now had an entire generation of readers growing up with these stories, reading them, watching them, playing them, living them, breathing them. Soon, this Potter generation will be reading these stories to their children, and why should it stop there? And Potter has been adapting to new technologies with particular agility, not just film but also fan sites and theme parks. If we bomb ourselves back into the Stone Age, future archeologists might dig up Potterworld in Orlando and wonder which stories these underwater ruins were built on. At such a time, Harry Potter will rise from the floods the way The Epic of Gilgamesh arose from the banks of the River Tigris in the nineteenth-century, bringing news from a distant era.