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How I travelled around the world in a pandemic

A confession: I have been travelling far and wide in 2020, even though there is a global pandemic on. 

For example, even as that city locked down amidst one of the most challenging periods of its history, I was in New York, in the company of a troubled teenager who went on a 48-hour drinking spree while raging against the world and calling us all “phonies.” (He was right, I feel.)

Before that I was in Zanzibar, in the shop of a furniture-seller. We drank coffee sitting amidst his antique collection. Over a few weeks I saw his life sadly unravel, as he made the wrong people his enemies. Later, I came across him in exile in another island, England, where he met one of the children of his adversaries to try and make his peace.

More recently I went to the other side of the world, to Japan, where a detective was trying to solve the inexplicable murder of a woman in her apartment. This chap was a great companion. In trying to solve the crime, we visited many of the local shops together and met a fascinating group of shop-owners and their relatives. I came back with a much deeper understanding of Japanese culture.

Next, I was fortunate enough to meet a very forthright man who believes this world of ours is in a complete mess (he uses a different four-letter word to describe it, but I’ll spare you that one). Nonetheless he convinced me not to worry; things have always been this way. If we adapt the thoughts of ancient philosophers to modern times, we will find the hope we need to face the challenges of our era.

I nearly forgot: I also visited a professor of pathology at the University of Kinshasa, in the company of a famous science writer. We were hot on the trail of tissue samples that might reveal the zoonotic origins of the HIV virus that has so bedevilled the world. Later we explored the majestic Congo river by boat. It was “hypnotic” said my writer friend, as we watched “the walls of greenery slide by.” 

Confused? Actually, I was not physically present in any of these places. And yet I was there in all of them. Perhaps a final example will illuminate:

I was also fortunate to be able to go really far, leaving even the bounds of this blue-and-green globe. I joined a mission in outer space to explore a massive cylinder heading towards our sun. We made contact and entered this strange spinning world created by a superior intelligence. We managed to understand what the spacecraft’s mission was – and were left humbled.

You will have understood that I broke no curfew or quarantine laws during all this travel. I am, of course, referring to some of the excellent books I have read during this troubled year.

No one has locked down our minds; no one can impose a curfew on our imaginations. We are free to travel, at will. All we need to do is immerse ourselves in the works of great authors, those with the power to evoke faraway worlds for us, some real, some imagined. 

This is one of the greatest achievements of humankind: that a few people can put down some strange squiggles in a certain order; and, observing these curling and looping symbols, the rest of us can be transported. We already invented teleportation, folks, centuries ago. It’s just that many don’t take the opportunity to sling themselves into places of magic and wonder and realization and enlightenment.

And so I continue in my own odyssey to convince more of you to read books.

I have already surpassed my target of #50booksin2020 long before this year of isolation is done. Why waste a crisis, after all? In this journey I have revisited some wise old classics; I have learned lessons afresh about human nature; I have understood more deeply what artificial intelligence might hold for us in the future; I have been taught the ins and outs of remote working by those who have been doing it for a decade; and I have been newly schooled in the flaws of my university education.

All of that and more, without crossing a border or risking an infection.

Please read. Don’t miss out on the many fantastic worlds and treasuries of wisdom available to you. Read voraciously or read sparingly – it’s your call – but do read a little. Support your local bookshops whenever possible – they are portals to both smartness and sagacity. Books can be your tickets to success; they can be your mentors to wisdom. All you have to do is pick them up and read them.

(Sunday Nation, 16 August 2020)

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