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.
Reactions and reviews:
- [The book] is a stirring manifesto, and Puncher’s arguments are impressive. He effectively inspires fresh ways of reading." Publisher's Weekly
- "This cogent, passionate text argues for a comprehensive re-envisioning of our relationship with the natural world . . Lively prose . . . Puchner’s fresh perspectives are intriguing and illuminating; they document how subtexts of colonialism, resource extraction, and consumerism are promoted in such disparate works as Popol Vuh, The Sunjata, Tale of Genji, and Aesop’s Fables. . . [A] challenging, important work of literary criticism." Rachel Jagareski, Forward Reviews.
- "Revelatory," Daniel Simon, World Literature Today.
- "seductive, novella-length hardback . . . unlike the historians he can tell a story of his own . . . He isn’t insensible to the marginal role suddenly occupied by the humanities in an age of science and algorithms. But by envisaging new epic story telling that wrestles more convincingly with environmental categories – one thinks immediately of Jonathan Franzen and songbirds – he can spy a tiny bit of light at the end of even that tunnel." QUAD
“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
- It seems that fiction writers are disinterested in stories of optimism and transformation. Literary critic Martin Puchner says, “The problem is the emphasis on sudden and catastrophic changes. We are still hooked on plots with flash floods because climate change is too slow for our short attention spans. This is the challenge for climate fiction – make us sit up and notice that slow pace of change. . . . new literary paths need to be explored “not because climate change is funny, but because it [comedy] can be a powerful vehicle for writing about everyday life, habits and imperfections.” He professes admiration for The Overstory and describes by Richard Powers’ climate fiction as being deeply informed by science. Puchner wants to see more fiction that marries scientific knowledge with transformative stories. He says, “We need a new combination of fiction and nonfiction, climate science and imagination,” and plots that transcend hackneyed apocalyptic laments that incite “Ok, doomer” memes.” El Pais.
- In this provocative, erudite book, Martin Puchner warns how narratives of 'sin and punishment' won't help us avert disaster." Financial Times.
- "Book of the Week," Oxford Alumni Association
- "A book about climate and storytelling that is not only upbeat but downright jaunty." NYRB
- "The Harvard literary critic Martin Puchner's recent book, Literature for a Changing Planet argues that the stories we tell have the power change how we respond to the crisis in the natural world. For Puchner, literature, and stories more widely, respond to how we live, but also create those very forms of living." Rebecca Tamás, Financial Times Magazine.
- "Such [winegrower's] cooperative might be one answer to the question like "How could anyone define the collective agent that would rise up to solve climate change?" proposed by Martin Puchner. . . . To recast wildly from "books" in Puchner's writing wines "are not natural tools." Forbes Magazine.
-“Martin Puchner’s Literature for a Changing Planet is an urgent call for rereading the stories that have shaped our world. . . . This text will be most useful to teachers of world literature looking to diversify their reading lists and pedagogical practices. It will be useful to literary critics seeking to newly engage with ecocriticism. And it just might prompt a new generation of writers—and spoken-word artists—to create the works that will move us into health and balance with the small blue marvel that is our species’ only home.”--Greg Brown, World Literature Today.
- Best book of the week, FT.
- September 16: Signature Event (Harvard University): Storytelling and Climate Change. Click here for recording.
- October 5: Poggioli Lecture: Literature for a Changing Planet
- December 8: Copperfield's Books, San Francisco, in conversation with David Damrosch
- January 12: Harvard Book Store
- January 16: Phoenix Book Club
- January 18: Boston Athenaeum
- February 8: pub date.
- February 9: Copperfield Books, 9pm EST.
- April 7: Florida State University
- June 21, Emerson College
- June 21: Keen On
- June 22, York Festival of Ideas, 13:00 EDT.