Running into Classics: Around the World in Eighty Days
In my mad desire to prove some unspecified thing to some unspecified person, I have decided to run the New York City Marathon. I have made this decision several years ago, but failed to train for it for the past two years. This year my failure was not as great. I’m certainly not ready for anything as serious as 23.2 miles, but I’m getting there. What “getting there” entails is basically running for as long as I can, and so far, that’s about an hour and forty minutes. The problem with this is that I can only zen out for so long before I realize that not only am I in pain, but I am also bored. My brain has been rewired due to recent technology advances (a.k.a. the iPhone) and now expects constant entertainment. So I began to download audiobooks from the public domain, the ones that are out of copyright and where a nice amateur reads them for you and records it on their PC. This wonderful place is called Librivox.
That long-winded intro was meant to explain why all of a sudden I will be reviewing really, really old books, also known as classics. What’s the point of reviewing them? Hasn’t everyone read them already, isn’t this why they’re called classics? Everyone read ‘em and liked ‘em and kept on reading ‘em through the ages. Well, I have doubts about our generation. We have too many new things to amuse ourselves with, and our desire for the next new thing definitely overcomes any interest we have in anything classical, since we all know it just means really, really old. So, I’ll try to bridge this gap a bit today by telling you, faithful reader, about Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.
This is a thin volume–the listening time was just over 8 hours–about a phlegmatic English gentleman by the name of Phileas Fogg and his newly hired French domestic, Passepartout. The book opens to describe this Fogg as a man of exactness who fires a a butler for serving him water that is two degrees cooler than what he specified. He does nothing of use with his life, but does belong to the prestigious Reform Club where he has some friends who meet with him whist (which I will have to look up one day, since it appears to be a great occupation of all these Victorian types). One day they meet to play and discuss a bank robbery. While considering how easy or difficult it will be to find the robber, the conversation takes place about how quickly the world grows smaller. Where it took months to traverse a country, it now takes days or even hours. Fogg mentions that it should now take a mere 80 days to circle the world and his friends argue. With complete calm he not only insists it can be done, but offers to prove it by setting out just as soon as this game of whist is finished. His friends take him up on it and so he goes home to a brand new servant and tells him to pack up.
Passepartout has only just entered into Fogg’s service hours ago and was ready to settle into a life of exactitude and calm, so, of course, having his world suddenly turned upside down didn’t sit well with him. But apparently a gentleman is a sort of god, and is not to be questioned. Passepartout quickly threw his fate in with Fogg and became the comic relief of a novel about a man who trusts in bare calculations and insists that anything life throws at him can be predicted and planned for. And so they set out with a bag full of money and a fairly exact plan.
Surely, a description of a journey for the sake of moving from one place to another would be less than exciting. But this is actually a story of a man battling chaos. And the journey he took on is one of more fantastic proportions, as this calm gentleman quietly sits on a train that is to carry him away from the dark ages of uncertainty to a world where it is possible to circle the world in 80 days, and moreover, to be master of your own destiny. In case that lofty ideas isn’t fun enough to read about, Mr. Jules Verne threw in a certain Mr. Fix, a policeman who got it in his head that since Fogg’s sudden departure coincides exactly with a bank robbery, Fogg must be the culprit. Fix obsessively tracks him and attempts to detain him somewhere just long enough to arrest him.
The novel isn’t laugh out loud funny, but that’s not how books were written back then. At least not your basic British novels. And, certainly, some information in this book is ridiculously prejudiced, like the part of the trip taking the travelers through India, where the natives were perceived as amiable savages. But no matter how prejudiced or outdated, the travelogue portions of the book are still fascinating as they richly detail the way of the world in the 19th century. As I ran through a park in the Bronx, I had no problem visualizing what it was like for Passepartout to walk through the streets of Hong Kong. I’ll tell you it was more exciting than watching for chipmunks.
In case you don’t know how it all ends, I won’t give it away. I’ll just tell you that there is no balloon flight at all whatsoever. In fact, the only mention of a balloon is this “Still, some means must be found to cross the Atlantic on a boat, unless by balloon–which would have been venturesome, besides not being capable of being put in practice.” I guess when the 1956 movie of that title included the balloon, the popular imagination ran with that image as iconic for the journey. The original book has enough intrigue, fighting, elephant chases, and even romance packed into it even without the balloon flight.
Like in most British novels, the main character is admired for his constant supply of money and the ability to be quiet, calm, and polite no matter the circumstances. Despite Passepartout performing excellent feats of both physical and mental acrobatics, him being a servant meant that he was ignorant and any positive deed was attributed to his master, his better. Despite this due to a social system that values class over any natural abilities, the book was still a very pleasant read/listen and since it is short, entertaining, and also a basis for many a adventure stories written since, I see no reason not to recommend it to everyone.
In closing, I would like to urge you to take full advantage of all these wonderful classics, available to you for free, on any device you own that you can download them on. Whether a text version or an audio version, finding out about these resources has been truly excellent and is helping me retrain my mind to accept a somewhat outmoded, more nuanced vocabulary, long sentences with tons of details, and a luxurious capability to describe something simple in an incredibly complicated way just for fun. And don’t forget! As a reader of the classics you also get to feel superior to all those uncultured fools out there.