cover image How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been

How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been

Pierre Bayard, trans. from the French by Michele Hutchison. Bloomsbury, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-1-62040-137-8

Continuing in the same vein as 2007’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Bayard, a professor of French literature at the University of Paris, constructs a case for the sedentary voyager who travels the world by neither land, air, nor water but rather by book, favoring poetic license above actual experience. This thread leads through Marco Polo’s professed encounters with unicorns and griffins in medieval Asia, Margaret Mead’s lascivious descriptions of Samoan sexual proclivities, and George Psalmanazar’s whole-cloth invention of an island society that captured the collective imagination of 18th-century Europe. Phileas Fogg, the protagonist in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, is celebrated for his expediency and emotional detachment on his trip around the world. Bayard defends German writer Karl May’s depiction of an American Old West he never visited, because it allowed for a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans; and he feels that French poet Blaise Cendrars’s linguistic gifts bring readers aboard the Trans-Siberian Express “in the context of a shared fantasy.” Bayard puts forth some interesting ideas about the capacity of literature to take readers to other worlds and the possible superiority of these experiences to physical travel; at the very least, these notions will sit well with academics and shut-ins. (Jan.)