The best books on imaginary journeys

David Damrosch Author Of Around the World in 80 Books
By David Damrosch

The Books I Picked & Why

The Divine Comedy

By Dante Alighieri, C.H. Sisson

Book cover of The Divine Comedy

Why this book?

When I was sixteen, I had a great love of rollicking, satiric tales, and a work called The Divine Comedy sounded like it should fit the bill. I soon found that Dante’s three-day journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise wasn’t quite the knee-slapper I’d expected, but I was drawn in by his melancholy eloquence, his spiritual intensity, and his ability to bring his cosmic landscape to life through the most concrete details. 2021 is the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death, but he still speaks intimately to us of the perils and the pleasures of our travels “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” -- in the middle of our life’s journey.

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The Conference of the Birds

By Farid Ud-Din Attar, Edward Fitzgerald

Book cover of The Conference of the Birds

Why this book?

A fascinating counterpoint to Dante’s otherworldly journey is this great Sufi poet’s down-to-earth account of a group of birds who are seeking a leader to put their chaotic lives in order. Attar’s twelfth-century verse novel combines spiritual quest with pointed social satire, as his bird-brained characters keep putting off their journey, held back by earthly attachments: to power, wealth, even to poetry itself. Finally they go, only to find that their wished-for savior is -- themselves. In Attar’s masterpiece, all history, all storytelling, the Holy Qur’an, and even the poem we’re reading become a hall of mirrors in which we see ourselves multiply refracted, guided by the poet who tells us that “he cooks his own heart into verse.”

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By Wu Cheng’en, Arthur Waley

Book cover of Monkey

Why this book?

I’ve always been fascinated by the ways writers can transmute real-life events into art. Dante was indirectly doing this when he turned his life of exile into his underworld journey, but Wu Cheng’en’s 1592 novel is actually based on the travel account of a seventh-century monk, Master Xuanzang, who’d journeyed to “the West” -- India -- in search of Buddhist texts. In Wu’s imaginative vision, the monk has to surmount 81 dangers on the way, aided by a river ogee, a talking horse, and a mischievous, irascible monkey named Sun Wukong, “Monkey Enlightened to Emptiness”. Who knew that enlightenment could be so lively?

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Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Island I Have Not Visited and Never Will

By Judith Schalansky

Book cover of Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Island I Have Not Visited and Never Will

Why this book?

Having grown up on a desert island (Mount Desert Island in Maine, to be precise), I’ve always loved tales of imaginary islands, from Thomas More’s Utopia to Spidermonkey Island in Hugh Lofting’s Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. Judith Schalansky’s atlas offers us a cornucopia of actual islands that she’s recreated in her imagination on the basis of travelers’ accounts; her book is subtitled Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will.  She gives us meticulously drawn maps of each island, with a facing-page hinting at the tangled history of its discovery, settlement, or abandonment. “Paradise is an island,” she says, but she adds: “So is hell.” Dante couldn’t have put it better.

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The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Book cover of The Lord of the Rings

Why this book?

Since I first read Tolkien half a century ago, Middle-Earth has always been for me the best of all imaginary worlds, the setting for the quest romance to end all quest romances. Tolkien drew deeply on his life experiences (as a soldier in the trenches of World War I, as a scholar, and as a Catholic) to create his matchless imaginary world, filled with multiple histories and beings, from real people like Aragorn to half-real people (hobbits), “real” fairytale creatures (elves, dwarves, wizards), and wholly invented beings (orcs, Ents, Nazgul). As his admirer W. H. Auden said, “only an exceptional poetic imagination could have created a Secondary World so complex, on so grand a scale, yet so completely credible in every detail.” 

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