When in Greece, should we read the Greeks? Or the British?
Whenever I travel, I recall my college professor, Fr. James Schall, SJ, urging us to read Aristotle when in Athens and Cicero when in Rome. He would say,
“There’s something about reading Plato or Aristotle while you are traveling in Greece. You will see the writing differently and learn more about the lessons from the author when you’re there.”
Not that I always followed his advice.
I recall a week-long beach vacation at the end of college. I brought thirteen books with me – a huge, heavy backpack in the days before the Kindle. I included within that hodge-podge collection a couple of plays by Shakespeare (blessedly in paperback), the Art of War (less blessedly in hardback), James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (in a tremendous hardback tome), Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics (hardback together in one volume), and sundry other titles. Nary a beach read among the pile.
I did read the Rhetoric and much of The Life of Johnson. Aristotle lived part of his life near the ocean, and Johnson and Boswell toured some of the islands of Scotland, so in a faint sense I was following Fr. Schall’s advice. The other volumes lay undisturbed in my backpack until I schlepped them back to Washington, DC, and restored them to their places on my bookshelf.
In later years, his counsel came to me as I prepared for trips. In Australia, I read several books by the leather goods maker, retailer, rancher and author R.M. Williams. When my wife and I traveled to Greece for a belated, longer honeymoon, I read Homer, Plato, Thucydides, and one of my all-time favorite books, Natural Born Heroes, about Greek heroes and gods, and the German occupation of Crete during the Second World War.
In those readings, I did feel closer to the authors and their messages. I saw places Williams wrote about; I visited his stores. In Greece, I toured a monastery mentioned in Natural Born Heroes, and I walked around the best city that had killed the best man in 399 BC.
“Feel” is the right word. My intellectual appreciation of the works didn’t change due to proximity. But I felt absorbed into the words and worlds of those authors. I could see in a way I could not see – from the Caribbean beach – Boswell’s and Johnson’s London.
Last year, I read Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest, about his six-month stay on Lake Baikal in the Russian tundra. In it, he offers advice that flew in the face of Fr. Schall’s:
“I already knew that one must never travel with books related to one’s destination; in Venice, read Lermontov, but at Baikal, Byron.”
Of the 70 books he brought with him to Lake Baikal, he only included one by a Russian: Lost in the Taiga: One Russian Family’s Fifty-year Struggle for Survival and Religious Freedom in the Siberian Wilderness, about the Lykov family, by the journalist Vasily Peskov. Intriguing, but not Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.
I tried out Tesson’s advice last month on a trip to Mexico. I brought The Bhagavad Gita and T.H. White’s rendering of the legend of King Arthur, The Once and Future King. Zippo about Mexico. Nothing by a Mexican author.
It felt different, like the book and I – while reading it – created a bubble, an island, amidst a world of which we were not a part. The books felt divorced from real life, as in pure imagination, like reading them in a dream or floating among the wispy clouds.
Then my surroundings came to my attention, fusing the book with my environment as a united whole. The tremendous crashing of the ocean waves echoed loudly in my ear. I felt the tumult deep inside me – wave striving against wave, a never-ending phalanx of water beating itself with weapons that soon sounded metallic. In the breakers, I became aware of the clang and clash of knights jousting. I heard the din of war in the backdrop of Arjuna’s tortured pleadings with Sri Krisha. Mexico, unconnected to these books, brought them alive in a sensational – and terrifically fun – way.
So what did I take from this experiment? Reading authors from places I travel does make their words confront me with new force and feeling. An aura surrounds Athens as I read Pericles’s Funeral Oration in Book II of The History of the Peloponnesian War. The physical confrontation with place moves my soul. And yet reading very different books from the place of my travel brings out unique enlightenment too.
Well, it turns out, when confronted by contrary advice, both advisors were right. I look forward to following them both on travels to come.
Image created by Midjourney.
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