Damrosch, chair of Harvard University's department of comparative literature and founder of Harvard's Institute for World Literature, set out to counter a pandemic's restrictions on travel by exploring eighty exceptional books from around the globe. Following a literary itinerary from London to Venice, Tehran and points beyond, and via authors from Woolf and Dante to Nobel Prize-winners Orhan Pamuk, Wole Soyinka, Mo Yan, and Olga Tokarczuk, he explores how these works have shaped our idea of the world, and the ways in which the world bleeds into literature. To chart the expansive landscape of world literature today, Damrosch explores how writers live in two very different worlds: the world of their personal experience and the world of books that have enabled great writers to give shape and meaning to their lives.
Damrosch proceeds at a...leisurely pace, though he occasionally makes weightless associative leaps ... Damrosch avoids diffuseness by seizing on spatial coincidences ... Damrosch’s curriculum is encyclopaedic but at the same time fondly personal ... Damrosch sees travel as a mental and moral challenge, not Phileas Fogg’s brisk experiment in abbreviating space and accelerating time. Around the World in 80 Books takes us on a tour of the author’s global head, and while expanding our knowledge it enlarges our capacity for fellow-feeling.
It’s a thoughtful work of nonfiction, one that is unafraid of its own intelligence while also never deigning to condescend to its reader. That’s not an easy balance to strike, especially when one considers the massive range of the canon Damrosch has assembled. It’s worth noting too that you don’t actually have to have read all the books discussed within. In truth, unless you yourself are a scholar of comparative literature, the odds are pretty good that you have not—as I said, it is a vast array of wildly disparate work. But thanks to Damrosch’s insightful breakdowns, the context is clear even if you yourself have never consumed the actual text ... a wonderful read for any literature lover. Fans of travel writing will likely dig it as well, though it’s far from a conventional example. Few things are more engaging than a person discussing that about which they are most passionate; for David Damrosch, that’s books. Within these pages, he takes us on a journey unlike any you’ve experienced—and it’s a trip well worth taking.
The reader cannot help noticing that Mr. Damrosch’s intellectual odyssey doesn’t feature stops in Germany or Russia, two countries with many great writers...Regardless of its ostensible departures and arrivals, Around the World in 80 Books is a narrative in which lines on the map tend to blur ... it’s a shame that a book so rooted in intellectual history doesn’t have an index ... There’s pleasure aplenty in Around the World in 80 Books, which includes lively essays on popular entertainments ... Mr. Damrosch offers succinct assessments of treasured titles in his library and tempts us to make them our own. Like a tour guide pointing travelers beyond the bus window, he nudges readers to notice parts of the global literary landscape they might have missed ... In a book that takes its narrative scheme from Verne’s whimsical story, readers might not be fully prepared for such gravitas. Mr. Damrosch’s itinerary...involves emotional shifts that can create the literary equivalent of jet lag ... But while Mr. Damrosch arranges his essays to simulate a trip, they can be sampled in any order, easily accommodating a reader’s mood. The eclectic range of his material evokes the cultural oscillations of last year’s lockdowns, when many of us couldn’t quite decide if we wanted to divert our minds or deepen them...All of which invites the question: Will Mr. Damrosch’s book, written in the shadow of a global health emergency, be remembered primarily as a curious artifact of that strange season in the life of the world?