A journalist's tribute to a mentor from the ancient world
<b>A journalist's tribute to a mentor from the ancient world</b>In the 1950s, when Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski was just beginning his career, an editor asked him about his plans for the future. He answered that he would like to travel abroad someday, perhaps to Czechoslovakia. A year later the same editor told him he was being sent to India and handed him a book, a present for the road, she said. It was a copy of <i>The Histories</i>, by Herodotus (c. 485 BCE-c. 425 BCE), a book that would have a profound influence on Kapuscinski, serving as both an inspiration and a guide for how he should approach his work during his distinguished career. In his beautifully crafted final work, <b>Travels with Herodotus</b>, Kapuscinski, who died in January, shares his early experiences in such places as Africa, India, China and Iran, as well as his intense engagement with the writings of Herodotus.
The reader is helped tremendously in understanding Herodotus through extensive quotations from his writing and Kapuscinski's detailed comments. In addition, there is considerable fascinating speculation about Herodotus' life, about which very little is known. A father of history, Herodotus traveled widely in the world he was the first globalist but the world he knew was considerably smaller than what we know today. The center of it was the mountainous and forested area around the Aegean Sea. Nevertheless, Kapuscinski says, Herodotus is the first to discover the world's multicultural nature . . . the first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding, and that to understand it, one must first come to know it. Both Herodotus and Kapuscinski are concerned with evil. He does not blame the human being, but blames the system, Kapuscinski writes. It is not the individual who is by nature evil, depraved, villainous it is the social arrangement in which he happens to live that is evil. For Kapuscinski, Herodotus was a valuable teacher of reportage. Accuracy and credibility were important to him; he tries to check everything, to get to the sources, to establish the facts. But Herodotus is also keenly aware that memory is fragile; the subjective factor is always present. Kapuscinski says that observation may be Herodotus' greatest discovery.
Many years ago, Kapuscinski told an interviewer for <i>Granta</i> that newspapers present the story of events, while his books tried to convey what's around the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town, the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper. <b>Travels with Herodotus</b> contains many of Kapuscinski's memorable experiences: traveling in the midst of war in the Congo en route to a hospital run by an Austrian doctor; witnessing the last days of the shah's rule in Iran; reporting from China, where his permanent translator always kept an eye on what he was doing.
Kapuscinski says he sometimes calls the writing that appears in his books literature by foot. That was certainly true of Herodotus as well, and this book brings the ancient and the modern worlds together for a memorable literary journey. <i>Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller.</i>