An Around-the-World Tour in Literature

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Iran, Fars Province, Shiraz, woman praying in Nasir al Molk mosque Tuul and Bruno Morandi/Getty

Inspired by Jules Verne's globe-circling Phileas Fogg, Harvard's David Damrosch has created a companionable, round-the-world tour in books to inspire armchair travelers and the intrepid in-person adventurer alike. From classical Kyoto to post-war London to modern-day Nigeria, explore how writers encounter the world and how the world bleeds into literature, as they transmute social conflicts and personal traumas into works of pleasure and beauty. What better way to travel than on the page today, and then in person once the last COVID restrictions lift?

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Holy shrine of Shah Cheragh, an important religious site, in Shiraz, Iran. Getty

Faces of Love
by Hafez, Khatun and Zakan
Shiraz, Iran

This collection of three classic Persian poets brings us back into a Shiraz of wine, song and romantic rivalry. From the often mystical Hafez to the erotic female poet Khatun and the satiric Zakani, all three poets see Shiraz as an earthly paradise—probably better than the heavenly one.

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Pacific Island, Pitcairn Island, boatyard, low angle view Michael Dunning/Getty

Atlas of Remote Islands
by Judith Schalansky
Pitcairn Island, British Overseas Territory

Schalansky's 50-island atlas pairs meticulously drawn maps with haunting single-page descriptions that hint at tragedies just off the map. As she says: "Paradise is an island. So is hell." Seeking a utopian space of freedom, the mutineers of HMS Bounty turn Pitcairn Island into a little hell of their very own.

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High angle view of Lower Manhattan, New York City Marco Bottigelli/Getty

Notes of a Native Son
by James Baldwin
New York City

Baldwin tells a vivid coming-of-age story that moves from storefront churches in Harlem to the jazz scene in Greenwich Village, all seen from the reflective distance of Paris. His eloquent essays form a perfect counterpoint to his native city's complex social and psychological landscapes.

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Fisherman's beach with the Petit Piton in the background. Philippe Giraud/Getty

by Derek Walcott
Saint Lucia, West Indies

Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize two years after publishing his great verse novel, which reworks Homer in an epic account of the rivalry of the fishermen Hector and Achilles for the beautiful Helen. Blending Creole dialogue with Dante and James Joyce, Walcott's poetic narrative expands beyond his island to encompass the world.

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Statue of Clarice Lispector (writer) at Leme Beach. Luiz Souza/Getty

Family Ties
by Clarice Lispector
Rio de Janeiro

Grounded in Rio's domestic spaces, Lispector's stories are world texts. An aged granny becomes a latter-day King Lear, rejecting her daughter-in-law Cordelia; cockroaches invade a kitchen like an army of tiny Gregor Samsas from Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. In Rio, you'll want to take a selfie by the statue of Lispector, her notebook in hand as she surveys Copacabana Beach.

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Big Ben Clock Tower and London Bus at England TONO BALAGUER/Getty

Mrs. Dalloway
by Virginia Woolf

Set on a single day in 1923, Mrs. Dalloway shows London returning to life after the trauma of World War I. As Clarissa Dalloway traverses her city, amid "the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging...was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June."

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People eating, walking and enjoying the Main Market Square of the Kraków Old Town at night with Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven (Saint Mary's Church) in the background, Lesser Poland Voivodeship, Poland. Edwin Remsberg/Getty

by Olga Tokarczuk
Kraków, Poland

Kraków is the literary heart of Poland, home to six Nobel laureates, most recently Tokarczuk in 2018. The heroine of her darkly comic novel travels the world to museums displaying preserved body parts; Flights itself is stitched together from dozens of short episodes, countering any authoritative—or authoritarian—narrative whatever.

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Grand Canal and Basilica Santa Maria della Salute in Venice Sergey Borisov/Getty

By its Cover
by Donna Leon

Leon's inspector Brunetti savors Venice's human scale as he walks the city's streets seeking to track down a murderous thief of rare books. Leon's Venice blends past and present, official corruption and private pleasures, in an environmentally stressed city of transcendent beauty.

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People selling different goods in the street in the city of Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria and the African continent. Getty

The Thing Around Your Neck
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Moving back and forth between Nigeria and America, Adichie's characters exemplify what she called "the danger of a single story" in a TED talk that's been viewed millions of times. Her Lagos is a complex blend of tradition and modernity, patriarchy and feminism, urban dislocation and unbreakable family ties.

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Aerial view of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey Getty

The Museum of Innocence
by Orhan Pamuk

No writer has done more to put Istanbul on the map of world literature than Nobel laureate Pamuk. After reading this tale of a man who has built a museum in memory of his lost love, we have the unique opportunity to visit the actual Museum of Innocence that Pamuk has built to embody his hero's obsessive love.

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A loving young Asian couple sitting side by side by the window in a traditional Japanese style apartment, chatting and enjoying the beautiful nature Autumn scenics during the day in Kyoto, Japan. Yiu Yu Hoi/Getty

The Tale of Genji
by Murasaki Shikibu

Shikibu's masterpiece unfolds a world of political and romantic intrigue in Heian-era Kyoto. Throughout his many love affairs, "the shining prince" Genji remains devoted to his beloved Murasaki (after whom the author took her own name) in this thousand-year-old novel written with deep psychological insight.

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Penguin Press

Excerpt adapted from Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch. Published by Penguin Press.