Literary scholar takes us around the world in eight books | To travel

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In his new book Around the world in 80 books, David Damrosch builds an itinerary that goes around the world and does not require a passport to enjoy it.
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Books and travel have always gone hand in hand, but the current pandemic, in which people around the world have suffered mass lockdowns, has made the need to escape through the written word even more crucial.

In his new book Around the world in 80 books, author and literary David Damrosch takes its readers on a global journey using some of the most touching books ever published, by Marcel Proust In Search of Lost Time, located in bourgeois Paris, to that of Marjane Satrapi Persepolis, capturing life in Tehran during the Iranian revolution. A recognizable force in the field of literature and a Harvard professor, Damrosch weaves anecdotes from his own life as a voracious reader, from an early age browsing the dusty bookstore near his school bus stop, to his many years as a ‘education. With extracts from each book, Damrosch builds an itinerary that goes around the world and does not require a passport to enjoy it. Her carefully curated collection of must-read written works spans time periods and continents, and includes a diverse selection of voices.

Around the world in 80 books


A transporting and illuminating journey around the globe, through classic and modern literary works that dialogue with each other and with the world around them.

“As [the Roman lyric poet] Horace once wrote: “Literature is both sweet and useful,” says Damrosch. “And since he put ‘sweetness’ first, it seems to me that literature offers an exceptional perspective and a different way of looking at the world while being the nicest way to do it.”

Here are eight of the 80 books that Damrosch highlights:

Written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese poet turned novelist and lady-in-waiting, The tale of Genji tells the story of Hikaru Genji, the fictional son of a Japanese emperor during the Heian period (794-1185) who unexpectedly finds himself far from the line of succession. Often considered the first novel in the world, it was not until several centuries later, in 1925, that the volume of 54 chapters received an English translation by the scholar Arthur Waley. The massive work not only transports readers to aristocratic Japan, but to an era far removed from modern times. “Shikibu gives us a new perspective on the present moment,” says Damrosch. “She’s a great master of this and challenges us to begin to understand what so many of her assumptions and expectations are, challenging us to read more carefully.”

Although she has lived her entire life in Maine, author and poet Sarah Orne Jewett chose to create a screenplay for her 1896 novel, The land of sharp firs, built entirely around the experiences of a summer visitor. In the book, the narrator, a writer from Boston, visits the fictional coastal village of Dunnet Landing with the goal of finishing her book writing and is mesmerized by the seclusion provided by the windswept cliffs and lush greenery of the region. In his interpretation of the work, Damrosch points out a criticism published in 1994 by the Library of America which describes Dunnet Landing as an “imaginary town that will be recognized by anyone who has visited Acadia National Park or Mount Desert Island”. He adds: “Literature in its very nature offers a perspective on the world, both inside and out. Authors often write from a distance, combining the familiar with the unknown, the native with the stranger, while writing compellingly and connecting audiences to places otherwise unknown to them.

“For me, Paris is Proust”, writes Damrosch about his analysis of In Search of Lost Time, work in several volumes published between 1913 and 1927 and inspired by the memories of the novelist’s youth in the Parisian district of Auteuil. Damrosch had many distinctive scenes to choose from, such as when Proust attends a chic evening at a prince’s house in Paris or family trips to the fictional seaside town of Balbec. One in particular is unmistakably French, however, and that’s when the narrator eats a tea-soaked madeleine, a dessert synonymous with France. Proust wrote: “I brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had dipped a piece of cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate when a shiver ran through me and I stopped, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, without any suggestion of its origin. . . I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Where could this all-powerful joy come from? Damrosch says it’s no surprise that Proust focuses on food as a means of transportation. “There is something fundamental about food,” he says. “What we consume and enrich us, and what we absorb. Literature and food are what enrich our souls.”

Located in pre-colonial Nigeria from the 1890s and leading to the inevitable invasion of the African continent by Christian missionaries from Europe, Things are falling apart provides a snapshot of African society through the eyes of Okonkwo, a fictional Igbo man. Choosing to divide his 1958 novel into three parts, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe gives readers a prominent place on how life abruptly changes for Okonkwo with the introduction of imperialism, creating two surprisingly different worlds. for the protagonist. One aspect of the novel that Damrosch highlights is the use of language. Damrosch writes: “Achebe’s portrayal of African society from within is closely linked to his plan to create English prose steeped in oral tales and proverbs. [found throughout Africa]. “He adds:” As a student of literature, it’s really interesting what happens when the European novel starts to be adapted to other parts of the world where there was no romantic tradition, and Achebe builds very clearly both on and against this He not only looks at his novel in isolation, but also the poetic language and tries to think about how to use the English language as anti-imperialist.

Damrosch describes Persepolis like “an autobiography, a history capsule [Iranian Revolution] and its consequences, and a meditation on the cultural complexity of the contemporary world. Published in 2000, the illustrated memoirs follow Marji, a 10-year-old girl living in Tehran, Iran, in an upper-middle-class household, and the dramatic societal change that took place during the Iranian revolution, an uprising that ended. in 1979 and resulted in the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty and the rise of religious extremism. Using black and white illustrations paired with compelling prose, author Marjane Satrapi shows how quickly life changes for her and her family as they adjust to life under a new political regime and the resulting war which upsets not only his childhood naivety, but also his security. ; at the age of 14, his parents took him to Austria to escape the war. “Persepolis is an extraordinary act of personal and cultural memory, “writes Damrosch,” although in its very individual setting it is certainly not (and does not claim to be) the whole story of Iranian history and culture.

Author Virginia Woolf chose to set her 1925 novel in her hometown of London, placing it shortly after the last bomb was dropped in World War I. Damrosch describes Mrs. Dalloway as “one of the most localized books,” and readers don’t have to read far to confirm that this post-war story is firmly rooted in central London. The location becomes evident in the opening scene when protagonist Clarissa Dalloway takes a leisurely stroll on a June day through recognizable streets like Bond and Victoria as well as Regent’s Park in preparation for a party she later throws in the evening for the town well. -to do. The novel itself takes place over the course of a single day, giving Woolf the freedom to plant his story firmly in a very specific time and place without deviating from its boundaries. “It really is a tribute to London,” says Damrosch. “There are specific spaces, like the Army and Navy store, which [exhibit] an intense awareness of the place. Overall, city life has never been better evoked than by Woolf.

From the 16th century to 1888, when Brazil abolished slavery, around five million slaves were transported from Africa to the country of South America. At the time, almost half of Brazil’s population was made up of people of African and European descent, including Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, whom Damrosch praises as “Brazil’s foremost novelist.” Machado’s mixed heritage inspired him to write The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, a novel published in 1881 and narrated by a deceased protagonist named Brás Cubas de la Tomb. In his writings, Machado is very critical of the patriarchal and slave society in which he lives. Damrosch writes: “In his novel ‘free form’ as in his life, Machado de Assis made his way, like a free climber from Yosemite, through the cracks and crevices of Brazilian society. He left us an incomparable map of a clearly non-utopian Brazil in the melancholy comedy of the journey of his deceased but immortal hero in life. “

Taking place mainly in Shanghai, where Eileen Chang was born and raised, as well as in Hong Kong, where she moved for university, Love in a fallen city is a 1943 novel about a woman named Bai Luisu and her sweetheart, Fan Liuyan. During a romantic getaway to Hong Kong, Liuyan declares his love for Luisu on December 7, 1941, which, unbeknownst to them, also happens to be the same day as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a distant ocean in Hawaii. . A day later, the couple helplessly witness the early stages of World War II as Japan invades Hong Kong. Chang offers a front row seat in the war from a spectator’s perspective. “Early on, Chang developed a keen eye for the intricacies of living in a Shanghai balanced – or caught – between tradition and modernity, declining patriarchy and nascent feminism, and Asian and European cultures,” Damrosch writes. “His stories from the early 1940s were written under Japanese occupation and avoid making overt political statements, but the context of the war is still in the background.”


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