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Around the World in 80 Books


Around the World in 80 Books

I have always been enamored by books about books. I still recall my visit to one of America’s finest independent bookstores, Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee. While talking to a salesperson there, I was reminded that people come to bookstores for two reasons: for the book they want to buy, and the book they don’t know they want until they discover it in the store. Books about books fall into the latter category. You read them to find out what others think about the book you might have enjoyed or hated, and to learn about other books that perhaps will attract your interest.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 BOOKS is precisely the type of book that I have described. A Harvard professor of comparative literature and the founder of Harvard’s Institute for World Literature, David Damrosch loves global fiction. Fluent in 12 languages, he has the ability to read many of the classics in their original tongue. When the pandemic struck and travel came to a halt, he decided to bring a selection of the world’s greatest books to readers through a fictional adventure.

"AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 BOOKS is an insightful journey into books that we know and ones that we might wish to know."

Damrosch chose as his vehicle for this undertaking a favorite literary character, Phileas Fogg, the adventurer in Jules Verne’s AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. Similar to Fogg’s adventure, Damrosch begins his tour in London and journeys around the world to Venice, Krakow, the African continent, Asia and points east. Ending in New York, he is able to return to the pages of novels that he loved and learn new insights into problems authors have confronted for centuries and continue to address in contemporary literature.

In London, Damrosch begins his journey with Virginia Woolf’s MRS. DALLOWAY. He chose it because it is so localized, taking place on a single day in June 1923, and it shows London becoming the world city that it is today. It is post-World War I, with aftershocks resonating throughout the city. Additionally, the great English novels of Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse are part of the London exploration and experiences --- an appropriate starting point for our travels.

The book also serves as a personal adventure for Damrosch, who includes pictures from his own journeys to Egypt, Israel and Mexico. A chapter on Krakow features memories of his family; some escaped the Nazis during World War II, while others were not so fortunate. Those of us who experienced Phileas Fogg through either the novel or the movie recall a hectic adventure, undertaken after a boast in a gentlemen’s club. Damrosch follows a far more leisurely pace in keeping with his goal of expanding our knowledge of the books and authors he has chosen for this project.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 BOOKS is an insightful journey into books that we know and ones that we might wish to know.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on November 19, 2021

Around the World in 80 Books
by David Damrosch

  • Publication Date: November 16, 2021
  • Genres: Literary Criticism, Nonfiction, Travel
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press
  • ISBN-10: 0593299884
  • ISBN-13: 9780593299883