Around the World in 80 Books
by David Damrosch
Published: November 16, 2021 by Penguin Publishing Group
In January 2020, David Damrosch was developing a plan. He was going to follow in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s legendary hero, Phileas Fogg, and travel around the world and in so doing, reflect on the books he associates with certain locations, and see how literature affects the real world, and vice versa. But when Covid-19 started burning across the world, the restrictions and lockdowns the pandemic brought about ensured that Damrosch wasn’t going to be traveling anywhere for a long time. Instead of sighing in despair and giving up on his round the world journey, though, Damrosch invited readers to follow him on a literary journey, and so for sixteen weeks from May through August 2020, he delved into five books a week, taking his readers to see places and meet people most of them had probably never encountered before– all through the pages of books. Around the World in 80 Books is the result of those literary travels, and invites even more readers to plot a course through the wonders of world literature.
There are probably few American literary luminaries as suited to showcasing the scale and scope of the world’s books as David Damrosch, a Harvard professor of comparative literature and the founder of the Institute for World Literature. He writes as authoritatively about Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as he does about Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, and if he’s wrong about Matsuo Bashō’s poetic influences, it seems that one would have to be as informed about seventeenth-century Japanese poetry as Bashō himself to prove Damrosch wrong. And while it would have been easy for Damrosch to look out from an ivory tower and condescend to walk among the masses to talk down to them about the glories of ancient poetry, it feels more like Damrosch is excited about the books he’s discussing and wants everyone else to be excited about them, too. As for genre, he’s not just bringing Very Serious Books About Very Serious Topics to the table. He throws genre fiction into the mix, speaking glowingly of Donna Leon’s Venetian Commissario Brunetti murder mystery series and Tibetan author Jamyang Norbu’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche novel The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, as well as giving serious consideration to E.B. White’s children’s classic Stuart Little and finishing off his world tour with a beautiful discussion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Everyone is welcome at the table of global literature, and every book is welcome, too.
When opening Around the World in 80 Books for the first time, there are two approaches a reader might take: first, one can devour the entire book in a handful of sittings and take in a smorgasbord of literary offerings all at once; or second, one can slowly sample sections one at a time, getting a taste of this or that and whetting the appetite for more choices down the road. The second one is a little less dizzying in its scope, though however they choose to approach it, the reader would do well to have a pen and paper or preferred book app to hand, as it’s nearly impossible not to find an appealing title that must be added to the endless To Be Read list at every stop along the way.
There is a flock of ” ‘fill in number here‘ Books to Read Before You Die” titles out there, but too few of them portray the breadth and depth of the global literary imagination as fully as Around the World in 80 Books. And though this list of eighty books will provide many readers with enough titles to last them a year or more, Damrosch provides even more suggestions in the final pages. His list, after all, is not the One List to Rule Them All. It’s a list of suggestions of great books that are great for different reasons. But its purpose is exactly what the title suggests it is: a round the world trip that takes place in the comfort of your own living room.
Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Group for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.