Nora: Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński
What it is: My freshman seminar reading from Wooster, impetus for a class examining history-telling through different media framed in the cultural conflict of east-vs-west. It was a really excellent class, one that I totally read the required text for and definitely didn’t just skim whatever passages we were discussing in class in the five minutes before. Strangely enough my memory doesn’t reflect this, but luckily I kept the book around these eight years. It’s a first person account of a Polish journalist sent on international assignments immediately after the opening of the Polish border. He’s a words-person outside of his native country for the first time, and he relies on books to teach him how to communicate with, and understand, the cultures he encounters. The book that goes with him everywhere is Herodotus’ The Histories, a 440 BC text outlining similar international travels by a part-Greek storyteller. He’s the guy who brought us all 300, so we like him, if only for inspiring David Wenham’s surfer-pirate-legionnaire phase.
Why you should read it: Kapuściński has an easy and intelligent voice; he simplifies many of Herodotus’ stories for brevity but leaves especially relevant passages in the original authors (translated) words. He’s connecting mid-century adventures to ancient texts, always driving at the human nature revealed through each experience, and the experiences are fascinating. I found the section on China especially interesting. Trapped in a hotel under constant surveillance by “Comrade Li,” Kapuściński develops a fairly negative view of the country, but isn’t very upfront about how his bias might influence his takeaway. It’s a very human book about humans, written by a human. If you’re a species-level narcissist, this is for you.
It’s also an excellent travel book, if you like to get a lot of philosophical reflection and critical thought out of your time on the road. I took it from New Hampshire to Denver and found myself with a book of stories cherry-picked to relate to travels, a reference of human peculiarities through time and across borders. Kapuściński does a great job of recognizing his own surprise without harping on about how many similarities he finds in Herodotus’ world and his own; how people, in general, don’t change.