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edge staff writer


‘Around the World in 80 Books’ a literary world tour

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One of the things that the pandemic has taken from us is our ability to travel freely. It has kept us close to home in so many ways, leaving us to remember wistfully past journeys to other places.

But what if you could see the world … without leaving the comfort of your favorite reading nook?

That’s what David Damrosch offers with “Around the World in 80 Books” (Penguin Press, $30). The decorated comparative literature professor has assembled a selection of works that originated all over the globe. Some of these books are ancient classics, others are more contemporary offerings, but through each one, Damrosch takes the reader a new more steps on this Phileas Fogg-inspired journey around the world.

It’s a thoughtful work of nonfiction, one that is unafraid of its own intelligence while also never deigning to condescend to its reader. That’s not an easy balance to strike, especially when one considers the massive range of the canon Damrosch has assembled.

It’s worth noting too that you don’t actually have to have read all the books discussed within. In truth, unless you yourself are a scholar of comparative literature, the odds are pretty good that you have not – as I said, it is a vast array of wildly disparate work. But thanks to Damrosch’s insightful breakdowns, the context is clear even if you yourself have never consumed the actual text.

“Around the World in 80 Books” consists of 16 chapters consisting of discussions of five books. Each chapter focuses on a place – sometimes a city or cities, sometimes a region – and introduces the five books that Damrosch has determined will prove evocative of that place.

From our kickoff in London – featuring familiar authors like Dickens and Wodehouse and Woolf – we’re off, zigzagging our way across the world. In Paris, we spend some time with Proust. From there, Krakow and Kafka (among others). In Venice-Florence, we’re greeted by Marco Polo and Dante. From Egypt to the Congo to Israel, from Tehran to Calcutta to Beijing to Tokyo. We head to South America – Voltaire’s “Candide” is there – and on to Mexico and the Antilles before making our way to the United States, where we visit two spots; the last is New York City, but the first will ring familiar to readers in our region – Bar Harbor, a place to which Damrosch has a deep connection.

(In case you’re wondering, the Bar Harbor section’s books are as follows: “One Morning in Maine,” by Robert McCloskey; “The Country of the Pointed Firs,” by Sarah Orne Jewett; “Memoirs of Hadrian,” by Marguerite Yourcenar; “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle,” by Hugh Lofting; and E.B. White’s “Stuart Little.”)

And that’s that – 80 books across five continents, all intended to serve as a sort of guided tour of the world through the literary works that it has produced.

“Around the World in 80 Books” doesn’t quite fall into the category of what I call “stunt nonfiction,” but it has some of those tendencies – call it stunt-adjacent, perhaps. What it does do is open up a rich and readable understanding of how place can influence the literature that springs from it, either directly or indirectly. Whether the work is composed in the place or is simply about the place, that connection between the two cannot be disentangled.

This means, among other things, that much can be discerned about a place by reading the books that spring from it. And really, that’s the whole point of “Around the World in 80 Books” – it really does give you a way in which to explore the wider world. Each book’s breakdown is engaging on its own, but it also invites the readers to find out for themselves – Damrosch has essentially given us a thoughtful and thorough introduction, one that will more than serve its purpose. But if you’d like to dig deeper, well … you’ve got the list right there in front of you.

For the record, the number of these books that I myself have read comes in at just shy of half. Considering the list, I feel OK about that number. The truth is that I probably enjoyed the sections on books I hadn’t read a little bit more – such is Damrosch’s gift for conflating the work with the place from which it originated.

(Some of my personal favorites: Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” “Candide” and “Stuart Little.”)

“Around the World in 80 Books” is a wonderful read for any literature lover. Fans of travel writing will likely dig it as well, though it’s far from a conventional example. Few things are more engaging than a person discussing that about which they are most passionate; for David Damrosch, that’s books. Within these pages, he takes us on a journey unlike any you’ve experienced – and it’s a trip well worth taking.

Last modified on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 18:19


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