Literary historian David Damrosch joins Zibby to discuss his latest book, Around the World in 80 Books, which grew out of a blog he started during the pandemic. The two talk about the thought that went into selecting the eighty books from around the world, David’s thoughts on reading translated works, and how he grew more comfortable sharing parts of his personal story, which made the book “a kind of a memoir of a life of reading.” David shares some of these personal anecdotes with Zibby, including his connection to Madeleine L’Engle.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, David. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Around the World in 80 Books.

David Damrosch: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. First of all, I love the genius inspiration for how you picked these books and the whole Jules Verne structure of it, how it started in COVID, how you started it online, and how you brought it to be this book in book form as well. I was hoping you could just quickly touch on that. Then I would love to maybe delve into a couple of the places that you visited that I found particularly interesting.

David: Absolutely. I’d had this idea a few years ago to do a book for a general audience about world literature, which I’ve written about a lot and taught for academic circles, but thinking how to bring a wider audience to the excitement of all of the great works we have now. It seemed to me that the narrative thread would be this going around the world in eighty books. It seemed about the right volume of number of books to look at. The idea then crystalized with COVID that since I couldn’t travel — I had thought I’d do the books connected to a series of places I had been and was going to, but then all these conferences got canceled, Tokyo and Europe, around the world. I thought, I can’t do it after all. Then I thought, well, I have the books, and so I can go around the world with these books. Then I organized it as sixteen chapters, which in the summer before last was sixteen weeks, five books a day, five days a week, one book per day five days a week leaving the weekends free to have a fiction of some break as time was all falling in on itself. It was quite an experience doing it in that very concentrated way, a challenge not just to write fifteen hundred words a day, but every day a different book, to shift gears. It also meant that everything was there in my mind at the same time. It really made it much more connected and much more conversational in the blog form. Certainly, the book is still there. I was having these interactions with readers around the world. It changed the shape of the book. For example, Rabindranath Tagore is in the book. He wasn’t going to be there. Then one of my followers in Delhi said, how can you come to India and not have Tagore? So we have Tagore.

Zibby: I think calling it even derivative of a blog, it makes it seem less academic or less — it’s so polished. It’s been a while since I’ve been in school. I miss school. I loved school. This book made me feel like I took this mini course. You’re very accessible in the way you write, your tone. It’s not so heavy-handed that you feel like you can’t understand even if you’re just in the midst of busy life. Yet it’s this new, academic, and yet just very fresh approach to analyzing literature, I guess is what I’m trying to say, but not very well, obviously, this morning. All to say, I got through this and I was like, I feel like I just took a class. I didn’t have to go anywhere. Not only did I take a class, but I got to travel the world and learn a little bit about every place I already thought I knew a little bit about. I found it just really amazing and refreshing and have so much respect for you and your whole career to date. I was like, okay, here we go, time to go to class.

David: Thank you so much. I will say that the blog form, it was both more conversational and kind of more relaxed, also more visual. Online, I had a lot of illustrations. I kept them this way. I have eighty illustrations along with the eighty books, or actually, eighty-one because there’s an epilogue about the eighty-first book. Also, having just the half a day to write the fifteen hundred words, I had to decide what’s really essential. What did I really want to show? What key scene, what key moment, what verses, and then what key connections to other works in that chapter and other chapters? It really focused and also relaxed the book a lot.

Zibby: Interesting. You start the journey in London.

David: To Phileas Fogg first in Around the World in Eighty Days. Then you have to come back at the end just by the very last day. He makes it around the world in eighty days. He thinks he’s missed it by a day because he’s delayed. Then he discovers because of the international date line, he’s gained a day. He comes in 8:45 in the evening, five minutes before he’d promised to be back. On the eightieth day, I actually posted my last posting at that time of day, Greenwich Mean Time, to match his model.

Zibby: Wow. You don’t miss a detail here. You start in London. Then I found some of the chapter that delves into the Holocaust and your own family history — chapter three is Kraków: After Auschwitz. Tell listeners a little bit about your — was it your great-great-grandfather?

David: That’s right.

Zibby: Your great-great-grandfather Leopold Damrosch and his violin career. Then all of these amazing authors, I learned more about Primo Levi here than I had known. One thing at a time. I’m very excited, if you can’t tell. Talk about your own family history and how you almost — as you so profoundly say in the book, we almost weren’t having this conversation today had your family not left where they were.

David: One of the things that emerged increasingly as the book went on is, I decided — it’s a very personal book. It’s partly kind of a memoir of a life of reading. Also, I wanted to just use examples of how literature feeds into our own lives and how it’s reflected, how we read is affected by what’s going on in our life, what’s happened in our lives. Personal histories, family histories came in. I started with very upbeat chapters in London and Paris, by and large. Each one leads into the next. The last Paris book is Georges Perec, the son of Polish émigrés who died in World War II. He was trying to reconstruct that. Then we go to Kraków. One of my followers on the blog said, oh, so dark so soon? It actually was important to think that literature is both uplifting and invigorating and deals with the traumas of life. We connect to the struggles we’ve gone through or that we know people have gone through, our families have gone through. In the case of Poland, I was giving a talk. There’s a Conrad Festival there. My great-great-grandfather was this German Jewish musician in what was then German territory. He was born in 1832. He leaves in 1850 to go to medical school in Berlin.

As a good son, he’s going to do a proper profession like his dad wants him to do, but then he really wanted to be a violinist. He finishes the medical degree and doesn’t do another thing with medicine, becomes a violinist, becomes Franz Liszt’s first violinist. Liszt was the godfather for my great-grandfather, Franz Jr., Frank, as it became in the US. Then he hits kind of a glass ceiling, he feels. He’s not getting anywhere in his career. He moved to the United States. So I’m going back. It’s the first time in Poland. My hosts take me around in Poznań where he had grown up. Amazingly, they found the gymnasium records, the high school records with the addresses. You could see where he’d lived. I went to these places. They were still there. I was thinking, boy, gee, wouldn’t it be nice — beautiful, old town. Suppose he’d never left. Of course, I know that generations later it would’ve been a whole different family. My own family was named Leopold after this person Leopold. I was imagining, suppose I’d been there reading Conrad in Polish translation eating sausages instead of Big Macs growing up. Then after Poznań, my host drives me on to Kraków. On the way to , we come to the sign for Auschwitz. I thought, if he’d never left, that’s where he would’ve been. That then leads into the discussion of these Holocaust-based things and also the fantastic Nobel Prize-winner poet Czesław Miłosz reflecting back on his own past and memory and survival and making it all into art.

Zibby: Wow, beautiful. I actually loved how you brought in your own family history, even your trips with your wife Lori. She’s such a great character in this book, just pops in and out. I loved how you wrote about her.

David: And our three kids. Each one makes an appearance in the course of the book. We’re very sympathetic if moms have trouble finding — dads also have trouble finding time to read, I must say.

Zibby: I have thought about starting a dads’ podcast as well, but I just haven’t gotten there yet. I’ve been trying to get my husband to do it.

David: Exactly, but he doesn’t have time.

Zibby: But he doesn’t have time. Yeah, exactly. I think he’d rather do a sports podcast than a book podcast. That’s okay. The way you trace through these authors, through Kafka and anti-Semitism and the cultural, political trends in Europe and everything that was going on, these poems that you included here were just — can I just read one of these poems? This is by — do you pronounce it Che-lan? Ce-lan?

David: Celan. Either Ce-lan or Che-lan if you use the Romanian pronunciation or a German pronunciation.

Zibby: I’m going to go with Che-lan because I have German roots somewhere. “Black milk of daybreak. We drink it at evening. We drink it at midday and morning. We drink it at night. We drink and we drink. We shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped.” Then it ends with, “Death, a master in Germany, shooting a woman. He shoots you with shot made of lead, shoots you level and true. A man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete. He looses his hounds on us, grants us a grave in the air. He plays with his vipers in daydreams, der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland.” Maybe I shouldn’t have read that. Anyway, these beautiful poems. Then it goes to shorter and shorter. You track the evolution of Chelan’s writing as it becomes more spare until his eventual depression and hospitalization before suicide at fifty, which is awful. “The shofar-place deep in the glowing text-void at torch height in the timehole. Hear deep in with your mouth.” They’re chilling. These passages are seriously just chilling. How do you feel going through them again? How did you even figure out which little pieces to pick and include and move us with?

David: It was challenging for me because I’m much more used to having fifty pages to talk about an author in a chapter, or an hour or three hours in a classroom. Now just fifteen hundred words, sixteen hundred words, equivalent of five pages, ten minutes, it really forces you to get to what really matters the most. That poem that you read by Chelan is probably his single most famous poem. It relates to these themes. Then I’m finding these all connect up. A lot of the pleasure doing the book was finding things that had unexpected connections back and forth, someone referring to somebody else. I thought, oh, wait a minute. If I remember, she wrote some essay on Dickens. I hadn’t looked at it in years. Then I find this fantastic, interesting essay on Dickens that makes a connection like that, so those things that will really work. With Proust, what I found I loved in teaching with the famous episode of the petite madeleine — he dips his little, beautiful cookie in — he makes this whole mythology around it that’s feminine, that’s moist. It’s round. It’s like a seashell. It’s like the town he lives in and all of these things. The original version that he first wrote is just autobiographical. It’s a piece of toast. What happens when a piece of toast becomes a bit of madeleine? A moment like that just gives you the essence of a writer and of an experience.

Zibby: Yes, I remember reading about the madeleine in college during my literature classes. I think of that, of course, whenever now, a cup of coffee at a nice restaurant where they sometimes have these little things. Then you continue taking us through the world all through Mexico, Beijing, Bar Harbor. Then I was very excited to get to the New York chapter, which is where I am right now, and to hear about Saul Steinberg and how you analyzed the drawings, back to what you were saying about the visual. James Baldwin and how he went back to Paris and his writing and Tolkien, this is such a full, robust experience. Take us a little bit through New York.

David: My last chapter is in New York. My next-to-last chapter, as I mentioned, Bar Harbor, Maine, in which I was born. I thought by the end of the book people have gotten to know me a little bit, and bring the personal out a bit more. In Maine, it’s my first encounter with literature as a kid. To me, it’s very important that what we read as children sets the whole tone for us. Certainly, anyone who’s read to their own kids — indeed, I read the entire Lord of the Rings to our kids when they were little, a very meaningful, moving experience, I would say, for all of us. With New York, we moved there when I was ten. My whole adolescence was there. This is when I first met actual professional writers. Madeleine L’Engle was a parishioner of my father’s in his church. She’d just published A Wrinkle in Time. Encountering these people in both Steinberg and also — Saul Bellow, I met through a high school English teacher of mine who knew them both. She becomes kind of a fairy tale figure in the course of the book.

Discovering this cosmopolitan world, discovering the world in New York and how it’s a migrant world, of course — I myself come to New York from away, as we say in Maine; from away meaning anywhere off Mount Desert Island. Coming to a sense of this world, then I end with Tolkien as the way to come back to England at the very end following Phileas Fogg. Tolkien, to me, is a fantastically interesting writer. He was so important to me. I probably read it ten times as a teenager. I teach him now. I teach him very differently as the last of the great World War I poets, which might not be how one would think of him. He was in the trenches in World War I. Almost all of his friends died. He was lucky he was wounded and back out. These kinds of experience and how they figure into this fantasy world and how reality comes into fantasy, it’s the very epitome of the book as a whole.

Zibby: You applied that also to Madeleine L’Engle and how she had this very isolated childhood and how she kept trying to write about it and getting rejected. I didn’t even know that story.

David: Ten whole years.

Zibby: Selling and selling until finally, she writes this fantasy. That sells. She says that kids understand some of these things way faster. You have this whole diagram. You don’t need to overexplain it. Kids pick up on fantasy immediately, which I also found fascinating. Of course, she becomes one of the greats of all time.

David: Exactly. I think we should all remain in close touch with our childhood selves. That sense of adventure and exploration is so important. This book is a very childlike book in that respect, just the pleasure of discovery.

Zibby: It’s funny, I wrote this memoir that’s coming out in July called Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature. In it, I go through two hundred-plus books that, for me, were important. I don’t know about you, whenever I think of a moment, happy, sad, whatever, I know what I was reading and where I was and which book meant a lot to me. Some of it’s random. I just happened to be reading it at the time, but it will forever be etched in my memory with that time. Mine was far less academic, far less intellectual, but still a journey of a life through books. Books, for so many of us, are so essential. They’re our companions as we go through life. That’s why I particularly appreciated this deep dive into your reading world even though it’s much more highbrow, literary, perhaps.

David: You know, I also have detective stories, several of them, Donna Leon in Venice and Dror Mishani in Israel, Sherlock Holmes. It’s as much a part of our experience of literature as anything else. I’m interested in this very fluid boundary between the elite and the popular. Orhan Pamuk is one of my eighty authors. He deliberately modeled a lot of his books on detective stories because that’s the way to reach a world audience.

Zibby: Very true. When you read for fun when you’re not analyzing or doing this type of investigation and analysis and whatever, what do you like to read? What are you reading tonight when you go — when do you read? Do you read before bed? What’s your pleasure reading schedule like?

David: Usually, at night. I’m reading a Dutch novel now that was just sent to me. There’s a great press called Archipelago Books if you’re interested in really cool stuff. Archipelago Books based in Brooklyn, they do beautiful little editions of translations of things that you’ve probably never heard of. They did very well because they picked up on Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle. They’ve become his American publisher. This has helped float a lot of their other publication. I’m reading a Dutch novel from the midcentury called A Guardian Angel Remembers. It’s a very ironic, satiric thing set at the time of the German invasion of Netherlands in World War II. That’s for fun. It happens, also, I’m teaching a course now on the philosopher and the tyrant which ends up with Hitler and Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. I just read another Hitler biography. I’ve read several. That was not exactly fun, but absolutely fascinating. Now this satirical novel is a fun way of thinking about these troubled times.

Zibby: You wrote a lot about translation in this book and the merits of reading work in translation and how to do that. Can you talk a little bit about that?

David: When I was growing up in the premodern era as a student in the seventies, in my field of comparative literature, you weren’t supposed to use translation. You were supposed to just learn languages and only read in the original, which was a great idea, but it means you can’t read very many works around the world. I certainly spent more than my share of time studying a dozen or so languages, but there’s a lot more languages out there than those few. I’ve never studied Dutch, for example. Am I going to never read any Dutch literature because I haven’t had the time to study Dutch? No. It didn’t stop Shakespeare from reading Virgil and Homer and learning a lot from them, or Derek Walcott from reading Homer and Virgil and Dante in translation. We’re in a golden age of translation right now. There’s so many good translations being brought out, translations and retranslations of so many books. The Tale of Genji, the great Heian masterpiece from Murasaki Shikibu, has now had four full translations in English in the last few decades, each one better than the last. It’s an amazing, amazing time.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you have particular translators or one translation that you have found — or have you ever been tempted with your languages to translate yourself?

David: In fact, there is one of my eighty books I have just translated, a fantastic Congolese novel written in French in the seventies. It’s called Giambatista Viko ou Le Viol du discours africain, Giambatista Viko; or, The Rape of African Discourse. Viko is not the Italian philosopher of a similar name. He is a self-promoting African intellectual who wants to write the great African novel so that he can be invited to conferences in Paris and Rome. It’s a hilarious academic satire, basically, and a very complicated situation. It’s a satire on the Mobutu regime slightly in disguise because he couldn’t quite say that openly. It was never translated, published in 1975. It didn’t really serve anybody’s interests because it was satirizing both the westernizers and the afro-centrists and the politics. Fifteen years ago, I was saying, world literature will really have gone up when a work like this can be translated and read. I’ve decided, finally, to put my time where my mouth is. I translated it. It’s just coming out next month in a dual-language edition. It will be available in French and in English. Translations have been very important. I’ve only read Tale of Genji in translation because I don’t read Japanese. Even in French, let’s say, Moncrieff’s translation of Proust is amazingly good. I’ve taught it in French. I teach it in English. I’m, in a way, as happy with the English translation. It’s just beautiful. Moncrieff has a feel for the flow of those sentences. That’s what matters so much.

Zibby: Is there anything you look for in a student? I know you’ve been teaching a long time. Is there some spark or something that you see in a student and you’re like, this is why I do this? Something like that. Have you had an experience like that?

David: Oh, that’s the great pleasure of teaching, for sure, is finding those students, and students with just an open-ended curiosity. I’m particularly happy to find students who just have an ear for language. I think there’s lots of academics who go into literature because it didn’t work out for them in philosophy or sociology. They’re interested in great ideas. Ideas are wonderful, but in literature, what brings it to life is the music of the language. This may be because I have these musical ancestors. To me, someone who has an ear is the single most important thing.

Zibby: Interesting. That’s beautiful. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

David: I took, as a high school student, a couple of writing courses from Madeleine L’Engle who was a parent in our school, our little parochial school on Upper West Side. She was really emphasizing, always involve all the senses. Really pay attention to how things are smelling and how things are sounding and to touch. I thought that was very good advice. I’m not so much the one who says write what you know, which is often said, because I’m also interested in, say, Tolkien. He never met a hobbit. He didn’t know what a hobbit was. He’s creating a term paper. He writes in the margins, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” He says, now, why did I write that? What is a hobbit? Of course, he is also writing what he knows because hobbits are sort of like little Englishman. It’s his world, but it’s also this whole other world. I myself think that maybe too much American literature has been rather parochial and written just to satisfy an Iowa writing school kind of inbred curriculum. What’s very nice is how open we’re becoming to the wider world. I feel like of the stories published in The New Yorker, at least half of them are translated from all over the world. I think this is a wonderful thing. I think just following your nose, reading what’s most exciting to you, and thinking, okay, now, I could do something like that, but how do I want to do it differently?

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much. Thank you for your wonderful book, for the tour of the world, and for talking a little bit more about it to me today. Thank you.

David: My pleasure. Thank you. I look forward to your book.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care. Buh-bye.

David: Buh-bye.


AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 BOOKS by David Damrosch

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