This remarkable book offers seventeen detailed answers to what the editors call a “robust question” (3). The question itself is triple—what is a literature; what is a beginning; and how are they related? The book asks us to “take stock of the tremendous variations within different societies” (4). We do, with a slightly dizzying effect. What does ancient China have in common with modern Russia, or ancient Greece with post-colonial Africa? How close, in any given case, is the relationship between literature and literacy? The editors borrow Wittgenstein’s analogy of family resemblances as a way of saving some connections, but they and their contributors are above all interested in difference. We could add a pair of questions from the same philosopher: “Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?”1

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