A Pact With Books: The Public Life of World Literatureby
B. Venkat Mani
Who defines world literature? Is it the author of the text that leaves its point of origin to find space on a bookshelf—physical or digital—in a far away part of the world? Is it the translator, the initiator of textual migration? And how does the reader, who determines whether a text keeps the promise it makes—that is, giving a glimpse of the far away world of its origin—define world literature?
Beyond the author and the translator, a very large number of actors determine a reader’s access to literary works. If the author and the reader were to be tentatively imagined in a producer-consumer relationship, one could see that there is an entire set of mediators, representing several institutions, who enable the distribution and circulation of a literary artifact for a worldwide readership: publisher, bookseller (or online vendor), librarian, magazine editor, literary critic, literary agent, book-festival organizer, the scriptwriter who translates a novel for theater or film, webmasters of “fan-websites” or Facebook pages of living or dead authors, selection committees for international literary awards, and TV personalities. And there is the current digital culture—reading media such as Kindle, Nook, Nexus; online collections such as Google Books and Hathi Project; and online libraries such as the European Library, the Universal Library, the American Digital Public Library—transforming readers’ access to world literature. In other words, world literature has a public life in which various individuals and collectives come together to institutionalize it. These individuals and collectives do not exist in a historical-political vacuum. In fact historical and political conditions create and exert ideological pressures within the political boundaries of a nation. Such ideological pressures shape not merely the course of a national public life of literature, but also a public life of world literature.
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