Reading Tolstoy in Madagascar

 Before I left for the Peace Corps, I did something a little unusual. I ordered a hundred books, used, off the internet, and packaged them up in ten boxes that lined the upstairs hallway of my family house. I’d heard that saving the world might actually include a fair amount of free time and figured that there was no better way to pass it than to read my way through the classics of modern literature. Besides, I told myself,  pending long future stretches of unemployment, forced commitment to a mental institution, or retreat to a nuclear fall-out shelter, I may never have such free time again.

      I started with Modern Library’s “Hundred Modern Classics” as a framework. Having already read about a third of those, I drew from other Top 100 lists. (I chose, of course, books with the vague potential to be interesting, deliberately neglecting those whose very titles threatened an instant coma. That’s right, Angle of Repose, that is why you didn’t make the cut). With some solicited recommendations, the list was rounded out, the boxes quickly filled and set to follow me to the other side of the world. 

      It took three years, not two, but as I leave Madagascar I am on the verge of finishing (98 down, 2 to go!). And as I look back, I realize that these books represent the greatest continuity in my past few years. Even as I have bounced around- from Niger to Madagascar, from training to life as a volunteer, in criss-crossing the island for work and play, and in moving from the west coast to the east for a final year- they have been the thread along which my experience was assembled, piece by piece. Often they were the lens through which I interpreted it. Wherever I went, whatever I did, one of those books was in my backpack.

      The books helped to pass the endless afternoon hours of village inactivity and the long deafening rainstorms that pounded the tin roof and made talk impossible. I read them while waiting at the taxi-brousse station in stifling heat and, more often than not, later too, while waiting in billowing roadside dust for the same brousse to be repaired. I read them at the bank, shielding my eyes from the impossibly long and disorganized line which stood between me and the money for a month’s survival. Sometimes, they were the only thing which made me happy, though occasionally they made me perfectly miserable (that’s right, Moby Dick, I am talking about you). I would go so far as to say that these books helped to keep me warm at night, but here in the tropical belt that was just never necessary.

      I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying my first week in my village: its tone, and my mortal fear of leaving the house, made me only slightly envious of that poor woman in the coffin who gets holes drilled in her face. I brought Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men on my first trip to the countryside and, learning a thing or two about the pace of the Malagasy work excursion, read it cover to cover in one impossibly long and boring day. I lugged The Brothers Karamazov up a mountain- a mountain no one had mentioned in the directions- and cursed each of the brothers, their complicated lives, and Dostoevsky in turn. I tucked Leaves of Grass into my backpack when I went South for the first time, and though I didn’t read much of it, I came to associate the open, flowing prose with the hills, grass, and emptiness of pastoral life there.

      In fact, the things I read, the words that I was stuffing into my head, became deeply associated with where I was. The memories are entangled still. It is an association that extends far beyond place and has much more to do with what I was thinking and feeling about life in Madagascar. I remember reading Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained the first time I realized I was happy in my village; it was evening, the rain was passing, and the kids were running home from school. A long stretch of doldrums- heat and hunger season, illness and unrest- was marked by A Farewell to Arms. Nothing made me reflect more on the quiet and dignified poverty of village life than Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And yes, I read War and Peace, every single word, in a still and very happy week not long into my second year. 

      As I read my books, I left them behind. They piled up in impromptu Peace Corps libraries in Ambanja and Diego, in Maroantsetra and Tana. Then they scattered to the winds. I find them now in the oddest places and in the hands of people I don’t know. And I am always excited to discover my books again. It seems the most fitting thing, for the thread of my experience to be cast to the far-flung corners of Madagascar, the books to serve as someone else’s lens, the words recast in someone else’s narrative.

      So I leave, and I leave all but two of my books behind. I cannot, after all, be expected to embark into the next chapter empty handed. I bring with me arguably the greatest work of ancient literature, Homer’s The Odyssey, and the seemingly undisputed greatest work of modern literature, Joyce’s Ulysses. It isn’t an accident, or a fear of a great works of literature, which led me to leave these two for last. No, this too seemed a fitting conclusion to a three-year thread. What are they, if not different words to tell the same story?



 The Complete List*

  1. Ulysses- James Joyce 
  2. Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man- James Joyce (6/16/11)
  3. The Sound and the Fury- William Faulkner (2/11/11)
  4. Catch-22- Joseph Heller (8/11/11)
  5. Darkness at Noon- Arthur Koestler (9/10/10)
  6. Sons and Lovers- D.H. Lawrence (6/3/12)
  7. Hamlet- Shakespeare (8/23/10)
  8. The Way of All Flesh- Samuel Butler (11/2/11)
  9. I, Claudius- Robert Graves (9/26/11)
  10. To the Lighthouse- Virginia Woolf (9/13/10)
  11. An American Tragedy- Theodore Dreiser (12/7/12)
  12. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter- Carson McCullers (11/4/10)
  13. Slaughterhouse Five- Kurt Vonnegut (2/4/12)
  14. Invisible Man- Ralph Ellison (8/28/10)
  15. My Antonia- Willa Cather (4/2/11)
  16. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained- John Milton (3/14/10)
  17. Appointment in Samarra- John O’Hara (8/30/10)
  18. Winesburg, Ohio- Sherwood Anderson (11/11/11)
  19. The Ambassadors- Henry James (10/13/12)
  20. Tender is the Night- F. Scott Fitzgerald (2/26/10)
  21. The Good Soldier- Ford Madox Ford (11/22/10)
  22. The Golden Bowl- Henry James (2/18/13)
  23. Sister Carrie- Theodore Dreiser (4/1/12)
  24. A Handful of Dust- Evelyn Waugh (2/3/10)
  25. As I Lay Dying- William Faulkner (2/1/10)
  26. All the King’s Men- Robert Penn Warren (5/4/10)
  27. Howard’s End- E.M. Forster (12/27/12)
  28. Go Tell it on the Mountain- James Baldwin (6/17/10)
  29. Hard Times- Dickens (12/14/2012)
  30. Richard III- Shakespeare (2/6/13)
  31. Point Counter Point- Aldos Huxley (10/28/12)
  32. East of Eden- John Steinbeck (6/7/10)
  33. Nostromo- Joseph Conrad (11/6/11)
  34. Women in Love- D.H. Lawrence (5/5/11)
  35. Tropic of Cancer- Henry Miller (8/11/10)
  36. Portnoy’s Complaint- Phillip Roth (2/21/12)
  37. The Age of Innocence- Edith Wharton (5/15/11)
  38. Chronicle of a Death Foretold- Gabriel Garcia Marquez (6/2/10)
  39. Death Comes for the ArchBishop- Willa Cather (2/28/10)
  40. From Here to Eternity- James Jones (3/27/11)
  41. Of Human Bondage- M. Somerset Maughum (1/20/13)
  42. Heart of Darkness- Joseph Conrad (6/18/10)
  43. Main Street- Sinclair Lewis (10/20/10)
  44. House of Mirth- Edith Wharton (6/28/10)
  45. Farewell to Arms- Ernest Hemingway (2/23/10)
  46. A Room with a View- EM Forster (8/26/10)
  47. Midnight’s Children- Salman Rushdie (11/15/09)
  48. The French Lieutenant’s Woman- John Fowles (12/11/10)
  49. Sophie’s Choice- William Styron (4/2/11)
  50. Winter of Our Discontent- John Steinbeck (3/23/10)
  51. A Prayer for Owen Meany- John Irving (3/15/10)
  52. The Glass Menagerie- Tennessee Williams (12/5/11)
  53. Handmaid’s Tale- Margaret Atwood (11/28/10)
  54. Travel’s with Charley- John Steinbeck (11/24/09)
  55. Blood Meridian- Cormac McCarthy (2/24/11)
  56. Moby Dick- Herman Melville (11/20/10)
  57. The Satanic Verses- Salman Rushdie (3/20/12)
  58. Oliver Twist- Dickens (1/1/13)
  59. Brothers Karamazov- Fyodor Dostoevsky (8/5/10)
  60. Anna Karenina- Leo Tolstoy (11/21/11)
  61. American Pastoral- Phillip Roth (11/13/12)
  62. Crime and Punishment- Fyodor Dostoevsky (2/20/11)
  63. A Tale of Two Cities- Dickens (9/2/10)
  64. The Day of the Locust- Nathanael West (7/14/10)
  65. Walden and Civil Disobedience- Henry David Thoreau (4/12/10)
  66. The Golden Notebook- Doris Lessing (3/7/10)
  67. Gravity’s Rainbow- Thomas Pychon (4/3/11)
  68. Play it as it Lays- Joan Didion (11/29/09)
  69. Rabbit Run- John Updike (6/24/10)
  70. This Side of Paradise- F. Scott Fitzgerald (3/6/12)
  71. Wide Sargasso Sea- Jean Rhys (9/3/10)
  72. Leaves of Grass- Walt Whitman (1/25/11)
  73. Song of Solomon- Toni Morrison (6/30/12)
  74. For Whom the Bell Tolls- Ernest Hemingway (2/1/11)
  75. Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte (12/5/10)
  76. The Confessions of Nat Turner- William Styron (11/9/10)
  77. Middlemarch- George Eliot (6/24/11)
  78. Fountainhead- Ayn Rand (6/23/10)
  79. War and Peace- Leo Tolstoy (4/30/11)
  80. Twelfth Night- Shakespeare (11/5/10)
  81. MacBeth- Shakespeare (8/20/11)
  82. The Essential Kafka (1/14/13)
  83. Self-Reliance- Ralph Waldo Emerson (2/27/11)
  84. Labyrinths- Jorge Luis Borges (5/6/10)
  85. Native Son- Richard Wright (1/7/13)
  86. Suite Francaise- Irène Nemirovsky (9/29/10)
  87. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men- James Agee and Walker Evans (8/18/11)
  88. Disgrace- J.M. Coetze (12/4/09)
  89. Suttree- Cormac McCarthy (11/15/09)
  90. A Death in the Family- James Agee (3/25/10)
  91. Love in the Time of Cholera- Gabriel Garcia Marquez (3/20/10)
  92. The Odyssey- Homer
  93. Siddhartha- Herman Hesse (4/5/11)
  94. The Power and the Glory- Graham Green (4/20/12)
  95. Lie Down in Darkness- William Styron (7/23/10)
  96. We the Living- Ayn Rand (1/29/11)
  97. A Bend in the River- V.S. Naipul (3/26/12)
  98. The Stranger- Albert Camus (3/7/10)
  99. Revolutionary Road- Richard Yates (6/19/10)
  100. The Picture of Dorian Gray- Oscar Wilde (10/26/10)

*This list, while complete for Modern Classic

purposes, leaves off the other 75 books I read

during my time in Madagascar.  If you want

to know those, you have to ask nicely. 

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