- Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Print Culture, and Germany’s Pact with Books by B. Venkat Mani
B. Venkat Mani’s Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Print Culture, and Germany’s Pact with Books offers its readers a combination of detailed literary analysis and encyclopaedic scope. Throughout an extensive introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue, Mani undertakes a rigorous “print-cultural investigation of world literature” from approximately 1800 to the present through the lens of bibliomigrancy (13). A composite of both Greek and Latin roots, this original term accounts for both the physical movement of books, as, for example, through trade, collection, donation, conquest, or diplomacy, as well as processes of virtual migration, such as transliteration, translation, performance, adaptation, and digitization.
At the centre of Recoding World Literature’s historical trajectory is an investigation of the role that libraries—understood broadly as a house of books, catalogue of titles, publication series, or collection of artifacts—play in both the construction of world literature as a theoretical category, and the actual collection and dissemination of literature around the world. Throughout, Mani is careful to elucidate the power dynamics of libraries, which can both enable and restrict access to users and often employ non-neutral methods of acquisition and cataloguing. While processes of translation and circulation form a common focus of scholarship on world literature, the depth of Mani’s research into the material conditions that enable such circulation is commendable. From the countless public, private, and digital libraries, collections and acquisitions, book series, and magazines Mani examines, I have selected four key examples from different time periods to convey the breadth and complexity of his work.
The first example is Mani’s discussion of Georg Forster’s 1791 translation of Kalidasa’s Sakuntala into German. Forster’s work was facilitated by Sir William Jones—orientalist, linguist, and supreme court judge for the British East India Company—who had translated the text into English three years prior. The circulation of this Sanskrit text initiated both a new tradition of translations and comparative literary scholarship in Germany. In particular, Mani ties this translation to August Wilhelm Schlegel’s later comparison of Sanskrit texts to classical Greek and Latin literatures—thus linking the translation of non-European texts to the development of comparative scientific knowledge for the first time. Among the fruits of Schlegel’s labours were the establishment of the periodical Die indische Bibliothek in 1820, which published German translations from Sanskrit, and Schlegel’s own Latin translation of the Ramayana in 1829. Starting with the translation of Sakuntala, Mani is thus able to trace a double trajectory: [End Page 267] he shows on the one hand how Schlegel’s theoretical interest in Indology formed an important precursor to Goethe’s theorizations of Weltliteratur as a poetic-aesthetic ideal in the early nineteenth century. On the other hand, he utilizes the example of Sakuntala to show the close relationship between Weltliteratur, British colonialism, and scholarly German orientalism, thus laying bare the diverse systems of geopolitical inequality in which the first theoretical explorations of world literature were steeped.
In another section of his book, Mani considers Reclam’s launch in 1867 of the Universal Bibliothek, a series of German and international titles that aimed for universality in scope. Mani situates this series within the commercialization and institutionalization of world literature in the second half of the nineteenth century, through an increased public affordability of books and the expansion of public libraries. At the same time, he shows how an evolving understanding of “German” as a national, rather than a linguistic, marker led to a more specifically public and political understanding of world literature. By constructing a world literary library through the presentation of established national canons in translation, the Universal Bibliothek is an excellent example of how competing concepts of “world” and “national” literature were not simply diametric opposites, but could play out within a single publication series or even a single poetic work. Through this example, Mani effectively demonstrates how a certain internationalization...