The evolution of global society in the 20th century was a massive change, but it was built, like every society before on the idea of a beginning. Beginnings are not always accurate, not always comfortable but they are stories that form the basis of the comprehension of common experience.
Written in earth
The first great book, which established the basis of regal power in the ancient Sumerian state, before being appropriated by the Akkadians and Babylonians, was the epic of Gilgamesh. The oldest surviving copies are around 4000 years old and are literally scratched into the clay of the land. The tablets were written in blocky cuneiform text, with a reed plucked from the Euphrates.
The story is about the Haughty King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, who finds enlightenment through his friendship with a wild man Enkidu. It is the story of the conquest of civilization over the fear and doubt of the wild. First through violence and control, then when all seems lost, through understanding of the will of the gods and of nature.
I personally recommend reading the Penguin edition because of the translation and the additional notes, but you can read the epic online.
Scrolling through the ancient world
The importance of myth to the Greek world cannot be understated. Each city had a founding hero who gave legitimacy to their presence, as much of the land they inhabited had been taken by force (yes we are looking at you Dorian Sparta). Cities were founded by Heracles (Sparta), Cadmus (Thebes) and Theseus (Athens) with the appropriate intervention of the gods.
Stories of heroes, kings and gods were not just told to inspire, they were also to teach lessons. As such Oedipus Rex is a giant piece of literature, as a play it stands in the pantheon of greatness in any age because it tells the story of power lost through pride. It was originally written on papyrus and rolled into a scroll for the use of players, not so much for the public as we see in the modern age. The intimacy of the scroll meant that most communication of myth amongst the common people was still predominantly oral and would be until the availability of cheaper, more compact works became available.
You can see fragments of the oldest surviving copy of Oedipus Rex at Oxyrhynchus online.
The codex thrives
The inspiration and freedom that came with the Pax Romana lead to differing ideas of the nature of the gods, or in many cases god. The Epicureans believed in non-interventionist beings, the Stoics that god was a form of universal reason and the Zoroastrians that god was a supreme wise being of goodness. Out of this mix came the Christian religion which took elements from most other faiths including, the Jewish belief in Yahweh. This new religion founded in the Roman province of Judea, by the followers of the Jesus Christ, focused not on reason or wisdom but on compassion and love.
In the codex, or bound book, Christianity found a natural fit for the storage and spread of its ideals. The advantage of the codex was the amount of information that could be stored and transported far outweighed the utility of the scroll. It was a format that was not well utilised by the Roman’s, who preferred the flow of the scroll, rather than the cheap egalitarian codex.
This tradition of cheap and wide distribution is kept alive today by the Gideons International movement, who will still send you a copy of the bible on request.
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire the spread of basic literacy receded. Stories of heroes, kings and gods had to be compiled and conveyed by Christian monks who had the ability to read and write, borne from the necessity of interaction with the bible and edicts of the church.
Being locked in a cloister all day, copying texts word for word, can get a little boring, so some monks came up with a wonderful way to individualise their works (also a great way to explain a concept to illiterate people), by illuminating their manuscripts with beautiful imagery. The importance of imagery in text can be seen in the Marvels of the East manuscript.
Gutenberg’s moveable type press enabled the collection and collation of folk stories, without the censorship of religion or politics. It enabled the folk stories of the poorest people, that guided their actions in everyday life, to be collected and output into print.
The Kalevala is an extraordinary collection of folk stories from Finland, relating to the ‘old world’ before the arrival of Christianity. Like many stories formed in oral story cultures the reliance on sound, song and voice to convey meaning or change is paramount. This meaning is organic unlike the books about kings and gods and highlight the attitudes of the everyday person to the challenges of the life they lead, making their actions as heroic as any story of great warriors on the battlefield.
The dawn of the digital
The average reader can now find all of these works and more online, but I would argue that there has been no seminal work defining the digital age.
Perhaps the reason for this is the amalgamation of a wide variety of people into states and global society rather than cultural groups. In these cases it seems that the importance of the stories of the individuals that form these states has replaced the need for a single story, to unite people.
The impetus for new stories will be the discovery of something exterior, perhaps alien to us. Given time it may be the story that will finally unite us and allow humanity to define ourselves as one people, in a growing cosmos.