“in our mad flight we turned our oars to wings“
It has been suggested elsewhere on this website, somewhat unoriginally, that every time a reader picks up a book he or she embarks on a journey, often of intellectual discovery, but potentially also of the emotional, imaginative, or even spiritual variety (see Roomful of Mirrors). Indeed, J.M.G. Le Clezio, chief inspirer of this series of posts and author of the original essay “Reading as True Travel”, argues that reading offers a form of departure that extends far beyond the limits of physical travel:
“The world’s mystery cannot be found through exploration: mystery resides rather in the world’s imaginable power.”
Certainly, it must be accepted that seeing more of the world will not necessarily open the traveller’s eyes to the infinite subtlety of the human mind (unless perhaps said traveller is the 17th Earl of Oxford on a controversial visit to Verona) and, to this extent, any parallels we may seek to draw between reading and travelling are limited: the results we can hope to achieve from each activity are distinct, albeit potentially overlapping. However, in this piece I would like to focus more on the similarities between what it is that drives us to pick up books, on the one hand, and book plane tickets, on the other.
Apologies for digging up Dante for a second week running, but I find it difficult to attempt to comprehend these underlying urges without referring to the Florentine poet’s conception of man as Ulysses preparing to embark on a final expedition, this time to the “unknown” half of the world that was thought to lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules (dividing Europe and north Africa). Dante sees Ulysses as the ultimate traveller, a hero perpetually and tragically in search of more. More what, exactly? More of everything, but most importantly more knowledge – “all men desire to know” – which is why he is a sort of anti-hero in the Inferno: he embodies both the desire for knowledge (always a delicate area where faith is concerned), and humanity’s inherently unsatisfied and restless nature.
There is no doubting the fact that the search for discovery and the pursuit of knowledge drive, to a large extent, our desire to read as well as our desire to travel. We read books to find out what happened and how things work, to marvel at other people’s imaginative creations, and, above all, to marvel at beauty (see Why Read? No.17). We travel for similar reasons. Moreover, we may return to books and places, but there is nothing quite like the joy of the new, of experiencing the hitherto unexperienced. As such, there is a large element of risk-taking in both reading and travelling – not in terms of physical danger, obviously, but in terms of whether or not we ultimately find what it is we set out to discover. After all, it is one thing to seek the contemplation of beauty, for example, but another altogether to strike gold in a way that is distinctly subjective and personal to us. We may be recommended books to read or places to visit, and yet it is almost impossible to foresee what it is that will move or impress us. It is not uncommon to put down a book or return from a holiday thoroughly uninspired by the preceding ‘journey’. Invariably, however, we trust that there is something out there for us, even if it is hidden away on the other side of the world. Something that would be good to see, something we must see.
Reading and travel are often viewed as activities of leisure, to be taken up in spare time away from the harsh reality of working life. I would suggest, on the contrary, that both are in fact often motivated by an underlying sense of urgency. See, for example, the frequency with which both inspire bucket-list discussions: “100 books/places to read/visit before you die”. That reading and travel might both reflect humanity’s consciousness of mortality is an idea that seems to surface frequently in Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, not explicitly perhaps, but it lurks behind some of the more central themes. In particular, the story of Noah’s ark, which Barnes uses as one of many ‘pillars’ around which to base his 10 ½ narratives, connects the idea of salvation through physical travel to that of salvation through literature. That may seem a stretch but bear with me – the story of Noah is intended (in the Bible) both as a literal account of humanity’s survival by taking to the seas, and as an allegory for humanity’s salvation through faith. That faith is accessed and understood, at least doctrinally, via books, and the story of Noah appears in the first book of the Bible, Genesis.
So should we be more inclined to see readers (ourselves) as intrepid physical and spiritual adventurers rather than as armchair navel gazers? Probably not, but there is undoubtedly a desperate yearning at the root of much of our literary activity, a yearning caught between despair at the inadequacy of what we know is true, and the hope of what might be true in the as yet unexplored landscapes of some distant reality. Barnes once again manages to convey this exquisitely in his assessment of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa – a painting painfully split between an overwhelming sense of foreboding doom and a glimmer of hopeful expectation (see the tiny ship on the horizon). It is easy to imagine that Ulysses experienced something similar as he sailed beyond the boundaries of man’s earthly realm, glimpsing the mountain of Purgatory as he did, before being sucked down to the eighth circle of Hell.