The world-traveled Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuścinśki had a special affinity for the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus, in Kapuścinśki’s estimation, was himself a world-traveled journalist by the time he wrote his famous Histories. It’s an audacious move to write a memoir in parallel to such a venerable book, but that, thankfully, is just what Kapuścinśki has done in Travels with Herodotus.
Travels with Herodotus is a marvel of concise, open-ended insight—or “outsight,” more accurately, since both Kapuścinśki and Herodotus are concerned more with anthropology than psychology. Travels is also that rare book that teaches writing as it entertains. For teachers, Travels is a curricular field day, bringing structure and focus to a wide array of subjects, from science to art, from the ethics of violence to the perplexities of love. For lovers of travel writing, Kapuścinśki has created an engine of armchair transportation that moves through both time and space. For students of the reporter’s craft, Kapuścinśki is patient and profound.
“We depend on others,” he writes: “reportage is perhaps the form of writing most reliant on the collective.” Travels is an unpacking of this idea through a reading of Herodotus, of “how he gathered his raw material and then wove from it his immense and rich tapestry.” This is “precisely the point worth delving into,” and Kapuścinśki’s years of experience as a foreign correspondent give him an immense and rich perspective with which to draw lessons of concise imagination from Herodotus.
What I most admire about this book is the way in which Kapuścinśki doesn’t just respect difference but actively engages with it. Until he died in 2007, Kapuścinśki studied dozens of languages, literatures, folk ways and political systems—cultures—and developed a mature, rational, soulful style capable of bringing the masses to the particular.
Here’s an example from “a small Congolese town” where he reported on life under the gendarmes who practiced “all manner of villainy, brutishness, and bestiality.” Conducting interviews with a group of gendarmes, he thought about what else was present: “a huge swath of world history, which already set us against one another many centuries ago.” Slavery and colonialism have left scars “passed down for years in tribal stories, and the men whom I am about to encounter would have been reared… on legends ending with a promise of a day of retribution.” What happens? Kapuścinśki whips out a pack of cigarettes and they “smoke the entire pack, right away, until not a puff of smoke is left!”
Kapuścinśki writes for learners and with the faith that art, as writing, has the power to transform lives through empathy and shared experience. Such persons are rare, though: “The average person is not especially curious about the world.” The world is a “condition” best dealt with with as little effort as possible. “Whereas learning about the world is labor, and a great, all-consuming one at that.” Whether it’s by way of “curiosity,” “a hunger for experience,” or “an addiction to wonderment,” Kapuścinśki weaves two worlds together, his own twentieth century with Herodotus’s fifth-century B.C., and brings them both to life.