Around the World in 80 BooksPosted: March 25, 2022
Around the World in 80 Books
Penguin Press (November 16, 2021), 432 pages
Kindle edition $15.99, Amazon hardcover $21.78
David Damrosch had big plans for this book. In the tradition of Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s fictional hero in the novel Around the World in 80 Days, Damrosch planned to make a world tour, giving lectures and meeting people, basing the trip on eighty books. Then the pandemic hit. Conferences were canceled and travel was restricted. So instead he set up a web site where he discussed a different book each day, five days a week. The web site became this book.
To Damrosch’s credit he does not purport to be offering any sort of canon. He makes clear that the selections are his own, and that someone else would have made a different set of choices.
Like Phileas Fogg, Damrosch starts in London, and like Fogg he travels east to west. In London he discusses Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Interestingly, his selection for Doyle is The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I still have the copy of that two-volume set that I got when I was a youngster.
From London he travels, as it were, to Paris and then to Kraków, Poland. From there he visits Venice, where he offers an interesting selection: the writing of Marco Polo, Dante with his Divine Comedy, and Boccaccio’s Decameron (a book that has resonance for today with its tales told in a plague world). He also writes about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but before that discusses By Its Cover written by contemporary expatriate mystery writer Donna Leon.
I won’t mention all of his other stops, but Damrosch covers the Middle East, Africa, China, and Japan. From Japan he moves on to South America, where he interestingly writes about Candide by Voltaire and Utopia by Thomas More, two European authors. His rationale is that the action in these two books took place in South America. In his discussion of Candide, Damrosch oddly fails to mention Dr. Pangloss, whose optimistic philosophy is central to the book’s theme. At the book’s end, where the characters choose to settle down in their own corner of the world, they say, you will recall, “We must cultivate our garden.” Damrosch italicizes “our,” saying “Our life’s path… is a social rather than an individualistic imperative.” I haven’t read Candide since high school, but I have always clearly taken that phrase to say that we should stop trying to fix the larger world and do what we can with our own small space. It is an individual, nuclear family, or small group endeavor, not a social expectation.
Damrosch then goes on to Mexico and the Antilles in the Caribbean. From there he makes a big jump to Bar Harbor, Maine where he spent his earliest years and then to New York City where his family moved while he was still in elementary school.
In the New York chapter he writes about one of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Damrosch describes how L’Engle was living in New York at the time and he not only met her, but she personally gave him a copy of the book. Damrosch and I are the same age and I admit to being jealous.
Although he includes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the New York section, Damrosch writes, “Our own imagined journey reaches its end, as we return to England with our eightieth book.” A good place to finish the journey, indeed.
There are omissions in Damrosch’s list from my perspective. He completely ignores California, the Midwest, and the American South. There are certainly many West Coast authors he could have included, and what about Mark Twain in the Midwest (I still have The Complete Novels of Mark Twain from my childhood) and Faulkner for the South?
Still, Damrosch delivers an engaging survey and many of his eighty books are no doubt well worth reading or re-reading.