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David Damrosch goes around the world in 80 books

The case for rereading cannot be made emphatically enough as we see how the armchair nature of David Damrosch’s travels serves as a nudge to readers to structure their favorite books

The case for rereading cannot be made emphatically enough as we see how the armchair nature of David Damrosch’s travels serves as a nudge to readers to structure their favorite books

In January 2020, David Damrosch, professor of comparative literature at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was all set to take off for a book project on a journey whose structure was inspired by Jules Verne’s classic novel, Around the World in 80 Days. He would start off from London and work his way eastwards, crossing oceans and continents till he had circumnavigated the globe and wound up back in London. He would visit “memorable locations” and the books he associated with them, and in doing so discuss 80 books “both to see how literature enters the world and to think about how the world bleeds into literature.” Soon enough, however, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, putting a lid on his travel plans. Instead of abandoning his plans altogether, Damrosch took his itinerary to the Internet, and over the course of 16 weeks in that summer he discussed with readers “a worldly locale through five books each week,” a book for each weekday.

David Damrosh | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

ALSO READ: The many selves of Jhumpa Lahiri

The result is Around the World in 80 Books (Penguin Press, 412 pages, $30). Now, as the world is on the move again, it is an interesting line of speculation to ask whether Damrosch’s discussions around each of the 80 books on his list of him have an interior quality that they might not have acquired had the pandemic not canceled his travels from him. He writes that his book by him “explores works that have responded to times of crisis and deep memories of trauma.” Bereft of the opportunity to describe views in the 16 locales (or clusters of locales) and interactions with those who inhabit them, he inquires deeper into the conversations and the sense of place in these works.

Armchair travel

We will never really know if Damrosch’s book became better on account of him being grounded — but the armchair nature of his travels serves as a valuable nudge to the reader to structure their favorite books, or the books that shape their character and outlook, around their concerns and concerns. We all need an organizing principle to draw a coherent line across the literature that tethers us, and it shape-shifts at different points in our lives and in changing circumstances. As Damrosch writes in the introduction, “We…need literature as a refuge in troubled times. When our external activities are curtailed, reading fiction and poetry offers a special opportunity — free from the carbon footprint of long-haul flights — both for pure pleasure and for deep reflection on our lives and the social and political struggles that surround us, as we navigate our world’s turbulent waters with the aid of literature’s map of imaginary times and places.”

Compelling concerns

Among the framing devices for drawing up this list, Damrosch mentions, besides the pandemic, “the rise of ethnic nationalism, isolationism, and the fear of people or ideas crossing borders,” and “the siloing of political discourse and cultural or religious perspectives. ” The 80 works he cites together take up these concerns; these concerns are made yet more compelling as the works are put in dialogue with each other. So, for instance, in the opening write-up on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dallowaythe thread is drawn to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darknessand taken forward to Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours, which is now being adapted for stage in New York by the Metropolitan Opera. And so it goes, for hardly any book stands alone in its concerns or inspiration.

Damrosch’s 16 stops on his literary tour are London, Paris, Krakow, Venice-Florence, Cairo-Istanbul-Muscat, The Congo-Nigeria, Israel/ Palestine, Tehran-Shiraz, Calcutta/ Kolkata, Shanghai-Beijing, Tokyo-Kyoto, Brazil -Colombia, Mexico-Guatemala, The Antilles and beyond, Bar Harbor, New York. (FYI, the Calcutta books are kim by Rudyard Kipling, The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore, East, West by Salman Rushdie, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu, and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.)

And as Damrosch’s literary travel comes full circle to London, at journey’s end, he wonders what the next books may be, for “we certainly can’t stop with eighty.” In these difficult, disturbing times, literature is a consolation, as well as a guide on how to distil the values ​​that may help us to make sense of the world and our place in it.


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