Books That Shook the World (Atlantic Books) is a series of “biographies” of the world’s most influential texts, each one offering readers not just a story, but the story of a story. One can imagine this undertaking at the core of a tale by Jorge Luis Borges, wherein the sequence of meta-publications continues with a volume giving the history of the Books That Shook the World project itself, and so on indefinitely until the end of time. The ten books now available or forthcoming in the series show that we’re talking about the shaking of a world that is primarily Western: Karen Armstrong describes the origins and evolution of the Bible; Christopher Hitchens writes on Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man; Janet Browne writes about The Origin of Species; only Bruce Lawrence’s book on the Qur’an helps to redress the imbalance.
In Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (Douglas & McIntyre), Alberto Manguel gives us a biography of the two books that he feels have, “more than any others . . . fed the imagination of the Western world for over two and a half millennia.” Manguel recounts various theories on the origins of these epic poems, including Samuel Butler’s suggestion that Homer was “a young unmarried woman, and a native of Sicily.” In chapters on “Homer in Islam,” “Homer as History” and “Homer Through the Looking-Glass,” he gives a thoroughly readable account of how the Iliad and the Odyssey have been considered (and reconsidered) through many centuries.