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Invitation to World Literature

See beneath the surface of 13 great works of world literature that have traveled the globe with this course resource for teachers, students, and lovers of literature.

A multimedia course for teachers, students, and lovers of literature; 13 half-hour video programs and website.

Great epics, plays, poetry, and other literary texts have made their way around the world through time and translation, and are still captivating audiences today. This multimedia resource invites viewers to appreciate and – most importantly – read these ancient and modern works. The 13 texts are introduced on video by a wide-ranging cast including scholars, translators, artists, and writers. Excerpts of the texts are found on an extensive Web site along with background material and reading support; an interactive timeline and a feature on translation; and resources for teaching and further study.

The Epic of Gilgamesh in iBook format is now available for purchase in the Apple iBooks and iTunes store.

Introduction to World Literature

Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.

—Salman Rushdie

[I]s the capacity for the quiet use of leisure, something essential to reading, on the wane? Isolation and insularity can afflict any land. One of the best cures is to read the finest literature from as many places as possible. Louise Erdrich might call it ‘life medicine.’

—Liesl Schillinger, New York Times Book Review, January 4, 2009

Welcome to Invitation to World Literature!

Our own time and place is a world shaped by all that has come before, not just the physical world we inherit, but the world of our own imagining. The stories of previous ages and different places are part of our heritage; perhaps, given our species’ propensity for storytelling, they are part of our DNA (figuratively speaking).

This multimedia series, Invitation to World Literature, offers you a passport to this rich heritage via thirteen works from a range of eras, places, cultures, languages, and traditions. These are books that we hope spark your interest, or satisfy long-standing curiosity about things you wished you had read, or introduce works that are new to you, opening up a world of connections and experiences.

Here were our guiding ideas as we produced this series:

  • introduce you to the richness and purpose of World Literature, its timeless stories, its living characters, and its diverse cultural origins and contexts.
  • inspire you to go further, both to read these works for yourself, and to make connections that build knowledge and understanding—connections between texts, between regions of the world, and between the works and your own lives.
  • and, at the simplest level, let you in on the secret that works of World Literature are “great reads.” In addition to crossing cultures, space and time, they are deeply satisfying and engrossing experiences.

We invite you to pick a work and start your journey.

About The Series

Invitation to World Literature is a multimedia series introducing drama, epic poetry, and novels from many times and cultures. Thirteen half-hour videos form the centerpiece of the project, and feature a mix of writers, scholars, artists, and performers with personal connections to world literature, from Philip Glass to Alan Cumming, Wole Soyinka to Kristin Chenoweth, all brought together by Professor David Damrosch of Harvard University, a world-renowned expert on world literature. The project was funded by Annenberg Media.

The Works

The thirteen texts explored in Invitation to World Literature are:

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
    • Sumerian, 2600 BCE and older
  • My Name Is Red
    • Turkish, Orhan Pamuk, 1998
  • The Odyssey
    • Greek, ca. eighth century BCE
  • The Bacchae
    • Greek, Euripides, 405 BCE
  • The Bhagavad Gita
    • Sanskrit, first century CE
  • The Tale of Genji
    • Japanese, Murasaki Shikibu, ca. 1014
  • Journey to the West
    • Chinese, Wu Ch’êng-ên, ca. 1580
  • Popol Vuh
    • Quiché-Mayan, ca. 1550s
  • Candide
    • French, Voltaire, 1759
  • Things Fall Apart
    • English, Chinua Achebe, 1959
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
    • Spanish, Gabriel García Márquez, 1967
  • The God of Small Things
    • English, Arundhati Roy, 1998
  • The Thousand and One Nights
    • Arabic, ca. fourteenth century

This mixture of old and new, novel, drama, and epic poem, English-language and translation, gives viewers a jumping-off point for an exploration of literature from around the world and across time. Guiding viewers through these great works is Professor Damrosch, whose passion for world literature connects viewers to every text as he shines a light on ancient cultures, modern questions, and powerful stories.

The Website

This companion website to the program offers further insights from Professor Damrosch and from the guests in each episode, as well as more background and food for thought on the thirteen works featured in the videos.

The site is organized into three main sections for each work:

  • Watch presents the video, the transcript, and biographies of each of the speakers in the video.
  • Read provides an excerpt and background to help readers get started with the work, including recommended translations and editions, glossary, and views from experts on the text. Please note that these works are widely available for purchase or in libraries, both on the web and in bookstores. We have provided links for convenience only, and we do not recommend or endorse any specific bookseller.
  • Explore extends the context for the work, with a slideshow, timeline, connections to works in all genres, and key points for discussion and further study.

Meet David Damrosch

David Damrosch

Professor David Damrosch is the lead advisor for Invitation to World Literature, and is a key commentator in each of the videos. Professor Damrosch teaches Comparative Literature at Harvard University and is an internationally renowned scholar of World Literature. He is a past president of the American Comparative Literature Association, and directed its 2009 annual meeting. He has written widely on World Literature from antiquity to the present. His books include What Is World Literature? (2003), The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh (2007), and How to Read World Literature (2008). He is the founding general editor of the six-volume Longman Anthology of World Literature (2004), editor of Teaching World Literature (2009), and co-editor of The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature. Prior to joining the faculty at Harvard, Professor Damrosch taught at Columbia University. He received his BA and Ph.D. from Yale University.

His works have been translated into an eclectic series of languages, including Chinese, Estonian, Vietnamese and Turkish.

The Advisors

The series and Web site were created with the help of academic advisors from across the country to focus on the general American reader who has an interest in world literature but isn’t sure where to begin. In addition to Professor Damrosch, advisors included:

  • Professor Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University
  • Professor Nina Ha, Creighton University
  • Professor Shona N. Jackson, Texas A&M University
  • Professor Martin Puchner, Harvard University
  • Professor Diane Thompson, Northern Virginia Community College

About WGBH

WGBH Boston produces a diverse range of educational resources in addition to such celebrated television series as NOVA, Frontline, and Masterpiece. Its materials for teaching and learning are used in more than half of the nation’s classrooms as well as many colleges and universities in the form of courses, teacher preparation materials, and curricular resources. Find more information at

About Annenberg Media

Annenberg Media, a unit of the Annenberg Foundation, advances excellent teaching by funding and distributing multimedia educational resources to improve teaching methods and subject matter expertise in K-12 and post-secondary settings.


Invitation to World Literature is a production of WGBH Educational Foundation with Seftel Productions for Annenberg Media.

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For Annenberg Media

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Lead Advisor, Professor David Damrosch, Harvard University

Professor Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University
Professor Nina Ha, Creighton University
Professor Shona N. Jackson, Texas A&M University
Professor Martin Puchner, Harvard University
Professor Diane Thompson, Northern Virginia Community College

The entire production team thanks our literary advisors, particularly Professor Damrosch, whose insight, inspiration, and humor not only made this project possible, but a great pleasure. We are also deeply grateful to all of the interview subjects in the video series who shared their expertise, passion, and personal experience of world literature in the spirit of inviting others into reading these great works.

Series Directory

Invitation to World Literature


Produced by the WGBH Educational Foundation with Seftel Productions. 2010.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-892-0