the 2019 reading project

And yes, I know that I’m behind. I don’t want to get into the reasons why, but I’ve now finished the fiction (novels and short stories) of Kurt Vonnegut, the 2018 reading project, and I’ve now started on the 2019 project. The 2019 project is to read the written literature of humankind, from the beginning.

I’m not sure how far I’ll get in what remains of 2019, but we’ll see how far we get and whether to continue this project in future years or shift to something else, but I’m almost certain that this project will continue through 2020.

Like reading the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, this project brings with it some interesting questions. The first is the nature of translation, though here the question of translation is somewhat different from the Arabian Nights.

For this project, we start in ancient Babylon and we immediately run into problems of translation, and so I have to rely translations produced by others. I’m also aware that the list of what I need to read might well change during the course of the project, as new readings are discovered, exiting tablets are translated, and the dating of existing tablets and their translations are refined.

So one of my tasks is to become familiar not only with the existing literature (and I’m cheating a bit in taking as my starting point the Ancient Literature listing in Wikipedia) but with the ways in which that listing might change.

Beyond this, there are the questions of translation. How for instance can we detect and understand idiom in the translation of a language that no one has spoken for centuries or millennia. And how do we make sense of cultural references that refer to aspects of culture that we have lost or forgotten over time.

This issue of cultural context is interesting for another reason, namely the purposes of the stories. We currently have an expectation that stories educate but also entertain, and some times entertainment will be the more important expectation. But it isn’t clear, and I’ll need to rely on others for this, what the purposes of the stories might be, within the culture in which they were first told.

I’ll admit that what I would be interested to be able to explore are our first stories, and the stories that our cousins, the Neanderthals and the Denisovans and all of the others, told each other around their fires in the evenings, with the stars overhead and the bright moon shining.

But beyond cave paintings and occasional etchings on bone or stone, and what echoes there might be of their stories in our stories (if any still exist), we don’t have any record of these stories, and short of building a time machine to allow us to eavesdrop, I don’t see that we will.

~ by Jim Anderson on 14 July 2019.

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