If there is an academic in America most committed to the idea of literature as a vast, human project, an artistic process of knowing and revealing that spans across social and political boundaries—even historical epochs—it is Harvard University’s David Damrosch. In his latest offering, Around the World in 80 Books, the founder and director of its Institute for World Literature professor and chair of its department of Comparative Literature assumes the role of armchair Phileas Fogg and journeys forth into literary realms to report back to us the fabulous array of storytelling, philosophizing, and religious questing that our species has charted out for itself. Born from Damrosch’s pandemic lockdown, Around the World in 80 Books lifts us up and into locales as diverse as London and Cairo, Venice and Bar Harbor, to highlight 80 works of literature that have helped to fashion our ideas of the world. At the close of his introduction, Damrosch quotes The Golden Ass by Apuleius: “Lector, intende: laetaberis: Attend, reader, and you will find delight.” Speaking, of course, of the profound riches of world literature he has on display in his book, he could also be speaking of the treasure chest of his own creation housing those gems. I spoke with David Damrosch recently about his new work.
For more information about Damrosch’s project, go to: https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/80books.
Apart from your academic career as a professor of comparative literature, what else in your background do you think prepared you—even prompted you—in the writing of Around the World in 80 Books?
A big factor was growing up as the son of parents who’d met in the Philippines in 1940 when my father was an Anglican missionary there. I was born after they returned to the USA when the Korean war broke out, but both my brothers were born there, and I grew up hearing about my parents’ years as a young couple on the other side of the world, and hearing bits of Igorot phrases that my father still liked to use. Then, when I was a teenager, my father had a parish in Manhattan just a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I fell in love with Egyptian sculptures and reliefs, which led me to learn hieroglyphics in college. So, I grew up with a strong sense of the world beyond America and even Europe.
In your Introduction you write that, prior to the composition of this work, you’d begun thinking about how you “might introduce a broader readership to the expansive landscape of literature.” Could you elaborate a bit on this turn of mind? What caused it?
Partly because I’m a preacher’s kid, I have a very evangelical sense that everyone should be introduced to the literature I love—both for sheer pleasure, and also as a way of opening out our often inward-looking American perspective. But, how to bring unfamiliar works to a general audience? Along with developing a clear and engaging style, I think that the key thing is to find a good narrative frame. For my previous trade book, The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, the challenge was to lead readers into an ancient culture they knew nothing about. There, my solution was analogous to an archaeological dig, which starts from the present surface on top, then digs down layer by layer. So, I began in the Victorian era with the epic’s recovery, then chapter by chapter worked backward to its loss in the Assyrian Empire, and further back to Babylon and its first composition.
In a way, Around the World in 80 Books was generated simply by its title, not unlike the phrase that came into J.R.R. Tolkien’s mind as he was grading a paper in around 1935, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He had no idea what a hobbit was, but finding that out led to The Hobbit and eventually The Lord of the Rings. I had the advantage of knowing who Jules Verne was, though I only had distant memories of the movie starring David Niven as Phileas Fogg. I’d never actually read the book. But, the idea of the world-spanning voyage, and the scale of 80 books, seemed just right. Then came COVID-19, with the added impetus to actually write the book in eighty days of work.
For you, as you write in the book, the literary artist works simultaneously in two worlds: the world of her experience and the world of books. Clearly, you’re doing the exact same thing here, and most expertly. What are the blessings as well as pitfalls on this tightrope walk?
To continue the example of Jules Verne, it’s all very well to have a good literary inspiration, but actually writing within the structure the book set up was quite a marathon. Phileas Fogg had his own struggles with everything from delayed sailings to railway breakdowns to murderous bandits, but at least he had long stretches of comparative leisure on ocean liners and luxury trains. For my part, it wasn’t just that I had to write 1600 or so words five days per week for the 16 weeks when I was first drafting the book in its blog form: every day I had to shift gears and discuss an entirely new book.
On the plus side, I made a point of picking books that were in dialogue with one another, within each chapter and often with their predecessors elsewhere in the book. So works like The Thousand and One Nights, Voltaire’s Candide, and Proust’s Recherche pointed the way for my journey as much as Phileas Fogg’s train schedules and guidebooks did for him.
You reference Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story,” a talk I’ve often used with high-school students to great effect. Adichie’s point is that we run a great cultural, even ethical, risk as human beings if we restrict our understanding of a person or country to only one story, one perspective. This quarantine project of yours feels like you accepting this football gratefully, as an educator, and running down field with it. In a broadly political sense, are you actively trying to engage readers along these lines?
This seems to me an urgent need today. As Adichie says, literature provides a vital counter to the tendency of political parties—and often of entire nations—to tell a one-sided story about themselves and the world around them. I wrote my Gilgamesh book out of distress at the simplistic story of “the clash of civilizations” that became current in the aftermath of 9/11. I wanted to show people that if you go far enough back, we find that Mesopotamia was the cradle of much of Western as well as Middle Eastern culture. So, I wrote that book implicitly in response to 9/11, and the new book is, more explicitly, written to counter the jingoistic ethno-nationalism that we’ve seen on the rise in recent years, from China to Hungary to Brazil to our own country.
If you had to reduce your list of 80 books to a Top Ten, regardless of geography, what titles would remain based solely on global importance?
That’s a tough question! But, if we’re thinking of works with major and ongoing significance for readers and writers today, I’d list (by date of composition):
- The Bible (of course, here I’m cheating, since that’s really 64 books)
- Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji
- Dante, The Divine Comedy
- The Thousand and One Nights
- Thomas More, Utopia
- Voltaire, Candide
- Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories
- James Joyce, Ulysses
- Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
- Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Was there a particular literary culture that was, say, more of a challenge for you, in terms of extracting from it all you wanted, or even expressing your understanding of it?
I’m tempted to say New York, because it’s so various and at the same time I’m too close to it to gain perspective, but probably the answer would be Persia, as it’s such a deep and rich tradition that I don’t know at all well, and in a language I don’t know at all. I would have liked to discuss Rumi, but I don’t feel that I have a good way to talk about his mystical verse, and the epic Shahnameh, of which I’ve only read brief selections. I’d need a lot more reading in the epic and in Ferdowsi’s world in order to be able to write about it.
Is there a book you ended up not including that you really would have liked to?
So many! Among them, I regret that I didn’t manage to include Lisbon among my sixteen locales. I’d especially have wanted to discuss Fernando Pessoa (of whom there’s now a fascinating just-published biography by Richard Zenith); Pessoa’s amazing The Book of Disquiet is in effect his own semi-autobiographical hero’s voyage around his room.
Around the World in 80 Books
By David Damrosch
Published November 16, 2021
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer and educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and writes for Chicago Review of Books and Kirkus Reviews. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, he has published criticism in Creative Nonfiction, The Review Review, and the film journal Kabinet, journalism in Bostonia and other Boston University publications, and fiction in the Harvard Summer Review. His poetry has been published in The Newport Review, The Broad River Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Compass Rose, and Mandala Journal. Twitter: @RyanAsmussen. Website: www.ryanasmussen.com.