I was listening to the radio the other day. Streaming the French culture station. I was only half paying attention, but I remember they were talking about the book Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. And my ears especially perked up when they compared it to one of my favorite books, Don Quijote. In fact, one of the speakers was busy making the case that, in fact, the two books are essentially the same.
Both Phineas Fogg and Don Quijote live in their libraries. Both of them are well off, but otherwise have nothing to occupy their time- no families, no children, no calling or profession. But they insatiably devour books- Don Quijote books of chivalry and knight errantry, Phineas Fogg books about the wide world. According to these books, they see the world in a certain way. And, for different reasons, become inspired to march out into the world to prove their vision of the world correct- either to prove that the world could be circumnavigated in 80 days, or that the profession of knight errantry was not, in fact, extinct. Along the way, they undergo wild adventures they couldn't have imagined. Things invariably don't go according to plan, and they return home, defeated. In Fogg's case, he is saved by a trick- since he went from west to east, he shaved off a day in going across the international date line.
These books are a testament to the generative powers books have. I'm reminded of something a biographer of Goethe said once, that Goethe was obsessed with making the external internal, and the internal, external. That is, assimilating all the inspiration he could, and then turning that inspiration back outside again in his art. This is what Fogg and Quijote have done: taken the books, experienced them, until they were left fundamentally changed. All that was left was for them to act in accordance with their changed inner self and bring their vision into reality through action.
Calvino notes in an essay that in novels of chivalry, the hero is always initiated into knighthood by a book. So in a book about knighthood, knighthood is only passed on through books. Did that book within a book describe yet another third book from whence the idea came? Did, he asks, did the concept of knight errantry ever really exist then, if it is only ever found in books? And yet, like our conception of the Western gunslinger, the myth has fueled our dreams and our identities as Americans as those of knight errantry did for Quijote and those of travel and adventure for Fogg.
But we never have quite lived in the wild west, Knight Errantry was long since dead once Quijote sallied forth from La Mancha, and Fogg is plagued by frustrating setbacks by people and institutions that his books could not have predicted. How do we reconcile the yearnings of idealism with the sometimes crushing nature of reality? The way we see the world with the way it truly is? We can push on it a bit- Quijote seems completely convinced of his illusions- but reality also pushes back and tests us. The prisoners Quijote frees are dangerous criminals. The police give chase to Fogg and disastrously delay him.
It's been said that the best way to read is as though we were in a conversation with the book itself. That conversation changes us, as it did Fogg and Quijote. The conversation takes on even more power when it becomes a conversation between the book(s) and people, not just a single reader. The shared reality that is created becomes all the more cured and concrete. Quijote had Sancho Panza, who gradually becomes "Quijotified" throughout their adventures. Phineas Fogg had his loyal attendant, and eventually, the Indian princess he rescued from immolification. The courage to act in accordance with one's inner world, and turn the inner outer, is easier with a few friends, colleagues, allies. Many police departments have long since stopped sending officers on patrol in twos, knowing that a lone officer will wait to call for backup- officers will charge ahead without waiting.
The more people engaged in a conversation about a book, the more life it has, as fresh perspectives are given, interpretations are discussed, and tangential ideas synthesized. The more expansive the book becomes. It assimilates the discussions, concepts, ideas, debates, essay, and interpretation that swirl around it, the calm eye at the center of the tornado. The book is unchanged, immutable, but the surrounding maelstrom creates vastation in the land. From destruction, creation. Creation through conversation and connection, through the reflection and subsequent action inspired by the book. "Every universe, our own included, began in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world... was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and... was, literally, talked into life." Michael Chabon, Kavalier and Clay.
Talked, yes, but perhaps also written into existence first.
Those swept up in the book find themselves forever changed, transported to a new land like Dorothy to the Land of Oz. She returns but not to the same Kansas, for she is not the same. She may as well still have on the emerald shades from the Emerald City, for, to paraphrase Proust, she sees the same landscapes with new eyes, sure as Quijote sees giants rather than windmills and Fogg sees lands of exotic adventures.
So the reading of certain books inspires an internal change within us, and psychology takes care of the rest: cognitive dissonance compels Quijote, Fogg, the reader to act, as Goethe would, and make the inner, outer. The more expansive that conversation is (the more readers with which to share that vision) the more trumpeting and powerful the change that ensues. And yet we've weaved ourselves a trap that must be addressed: if it all started with a book, and that book began with another book, where does the fiction end and the truth begin? Keep tracing the books-within-books back, as Calvino did, and we may never stop.
Perhaps we might trace those books back and wind up right back where we started- there and back again, a Hobbit's tale. That's usually the way a quest works, right? One must come home. A worthless quest(ion)? Not at all. Because in that search for the elusive (nonexistent?) Original book, the one that gave rise to all the others, we don't quite find it. It's within each of us already. We catch glimpses of it, a diaphanous dress disappearing around the corner, a glimpse into a room before the door slams shut, a sliver of mountaintop through the dense trees. The more we read the more we confirm what we already know. The One Book is already there, existing for as long as there were humans in "murmuring, recital... talked into life," yet paradoxically waiting to be written through our quest(ion)ing, our connecting the dots. The universal themes emerge, the same principles different only in their application, the original perpetual energy, waiting to be tapped by the persistent and the perspicacious. Perhaps Quijote and Fogg are a retelling of the same story. The more I read, the more I see that each book is a retelling of the same story. Each is a facet of what Calvino called The One Book, the sum of mankind's attempts to create a pattern language to explain life, and death, representative of the universal ur-Cycle that forms the basis of the sum of the human experience, the human condition, the observed/created universe (created in its very observation).
...sees much and knows much