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Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch

25th January 2022

Around the World in 80 Books by David DamroschAround the World in 80 Books

The author is David Damrosch, the Ernest Bernbaum Professor and Chair of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and director of Harvard’s Institute for World Literature. He is thus incredibly well placed to bring together books that allow insight into familiar and unfamiliar parts of the world.

His love of literature started at age 15 with reading The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, for which he put aside Lord of the Rings. He has always had a love of books and in this book he chooses 5 books for each chosen locale, alighting on authors who have drawn both on their home culture and on traditions beyond their own. He examines how, in these books, they interpret their surroundings and heritage and how they capture images beyond their everyday existence.

He ‘sets out’ on his journey from the Reform Club, where it all began in Verne’s novel ‘Around The World in Eighty Days’

He opens this book with London (London: Inventing a City) and first up is Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Wolf, which takes place on one day in central London in June 1923. He moves on to Charles Dickens of whom he says “Few writers and their cities have ever been so closely linked as Dickens and London”. The author stresses how innumerable guidebooks and websites invite you to join them on tours of Dickens’ city, perfect for people who want to really understand the city, inspired after reading amazingly evocative literature.

The next chapter is Paris (Paris:Writer’s Paradise) and you cannot really discuss literature with a sense of place without mentioning the city of light. On the Tripfiction database, books set in Paris always come top in searches, people love to read evocatively about the city. He opens with Proust and feels “Paris is Proust”. Moving on through Kraków he descends on Venice – Florence: Invincible cities and delves into the works of Boccaccio (the Decameron), Marco Polo and Dante Alighieri, and chooses to feature Donna Leon’s By Its Cover (just how do you choose a single Brunetti novel, now that she has written well over 30 books?). A curated list of books set in Venice has to feature this author! The author says “Literary pilgrims often seek out settings they’ve read about in a favourite author .” (of course!) and Donna Leon, he feels, is “a particularly good guide to her adoptive city, as she views it both as an insider and an outsider“. Much like Boccaccio’s plague, says the author, Venice now has its own plague – tourism – which the publishers of the ‘Dream of Venice” series constantly highlights… innate citywide corruption and bribery notwithstanding.

The author chooses many socially aware titles across the world that offer depth and understanding of the history of any given country, alighting on the major continents and sharing books that he feels will get under the skin of the people, culture and tradition. He ‘travels’ the world from Europe, through the various continents and winds up in the migrant metropolis of New York.

The author acknowledges that it has been a real challenge deciding which places and books to choose and which to leave out. Selected titles, not included in the main body of the book, get a quick mention at the end.

Around the World in 80 Books is an erudite look at world literature, focussing on the individual interpretation of place and history. Many books featured offer a sense of the footsteps past that shed light on places as they are experienced today. The author has brought together an interesting collection of books in this tome.

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