Review: The Norton Anthology of World Literature

The Norton Anthology of World Literature
The Norton Anthology of World Literature by Martin Puchner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is excellent and I would assert that it is an essential feature in anyone’s library, especially those with children. The entire anthology of which this is a volume is a simply amazing conglomeration of the greatest writings some of the greatest minds of the world have ever produced. My reasons for marking this volume in particular as only three of five stars are:

1. Taste. My own personal preferences are decidedly Western (though I have a very large spot in my heart for Indian literature as well) and the majority of this volume is taken up by Asian literature. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to find the requisite interest in or enjoyment of Chinese, Japanese, or other East Asian literature. I’m not asserting that Western literature is objectively better than Eastern literature, but merely admitting where my interests lie. This is not to say that there aren’t large portions of the Asian literature contained in this book that I didn’t enjoy, but only that most of it was tough going for me.

2. One single footnote on Voltaire’s “Candide” was enough to lose one star altogether. I found it rather pathetic (in the negative sense of the word) that the editors felt the need to apologize, in said footnote, for Voltaire’s supposed “Anti-Semitism.” In “Candide,” Voltaire mocks and derides a plethora of religious, historical, philosophical, and political figures, groups, and ideologies, but the Jews alone get a footnote in which the editor apologizes for the author’s thoughts on them. This seems superfluous and silly and it was distracting enough for me that it nearly tainted the entire anthology.

Aside from those two relatively minor points, this is a great book and, whether tough reading for some or not, a must-read — in fact, a collection of must-reads!

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Their humanity is savage and brutal

We are but too apt to consider things in the state in which we find them, without sufficiently adverting to the causes by which they have been produced, and possibly may be upheld. Nothing is more certain, than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; and were indeed the result of both combined; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion. The nobility and the clergy, the one by profession, the other by patronage, kept learning in existence, even in the midst of arms and confusions, and whilst governments were rather in their causes than formed. Learning paid back what it received to nobility and to priesthood, and paid it with usury, by enlarging their ideas, and by furnishing their minds. Happy if they had all continued to know their indissoluble union, and their proper place! Happy if learning, not debauched by ambition, had been satisfied to continue the instructor, and not aspired to be the master! Along with its natural protectors and guardians, learning will be cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude.

If, as I suspect, modern letters owe more than they are always willing to owe to ancient manners, so do other interests which we value full as much as they are worth. Even commerce, and trade, and manufacture, the gods of our economical politicians, are themselves perhaps but creatures; are themselves but effects, which as first causes, we choose to worship. They certainly grew under the same shade in which learning flourished. They too may decay with their natural protecting principles. With you, for the present at least, they all threaten to disappear together. Where trade and manufacturers are wanting to a people, and the spirit of nobility and religion remains, sentiment supplies, and not always ill supplies, their place; but if commerce and the arts should be lost in an experiment to try how well a state may stand without these old fundamental principles, what sort of a thing must be a nation of gross, stupid, ferocious, and, at the same time, poor and sordid, barbarians, destitute of religion, honour, or manly pride, possessing nothing at present, and hoping for nothing hereafter?

I wish you may not be going fast, and by the shortest cut, to that horrible and disgustful situation. Already there appears a poverty of conception, a coarseness and a vulgarity, in all the proceedings of the Assembly and of all their instructors. Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France