March Reading 2023: Richard Fidler and baggage. Observation notes 115-116 and Reading Note 62

Being in the thick of Autumn Semester plummeted my recreational reading to a dismally low seven books (though during lockdown years, this would have been quite the achievement) across the month of March. This thick of it includes making time today to write this post despite having nearly 200 assessment submissions waiting for me to mark. So I will be quick!

Observation note 115: Moral to the story is “do not read books when you are overwhelmingly busy”. Of the seven books, I rated none of them above a 3.5/5 stars. At best, I was only partially engaged, and at worst, I was bored and annoyed. So why did I even bother to read the books? Well…they were all library reservations which I had waited for months upon months for them to arrive. They had all been on my TBR for a long time, and some of them I had deferred from borrowing several times, so I gave up and just borrowed them at a bad time instead. I realise this is due to my own reading baggage*. Despite knowing I was strapped for time, I persisted where I probably should not have. I think that I did most of the books a disservice. I hope to post about some of them in the next week or so (after marking has been completed). I have drafted notes for the other books I read in March but I will only discuss one in this post.

Reading Note 62: Richard Fidler’s The Book of Roads and Kingdoms.

Cover: A mosaic like design in orange, blues and greens.

The blurb: A lost imperial city, full of wonder and marvels. An empire that was the largest the world had ever seen, established with astonishing speed. A people obsessed with travel, knowledge and adventure.

When Richard Fidler came across the account of Ibn Fadlan – a tenth-century Arab diplomat who travelled all the way from Baghdad to the cold riverlands of modern-day Russia – he was struck by how modern his voice was, like that of a twenty-first century time-traveller dropped into a medieval wilderness. On further investigation, Fidler discovered this was just one of countless reports from Arab and Persian travellers of their adventures in medieval China, India, Africa and Byzantium. Put together, he saw these stories formed a crazy quilt picture of a lost world.

The Book of Roads & Kingdoms is the story of the medieval wanderers who travelled out to the edges of the known world during Islam’s fabled Golden Age; an era when the caliphs of Baghdad presided over a dominion greater than the Roman Empire at its peak, stretching from North Africa to India. Imperial Baghdad, founded as the ‘City of Peace’, quickly became the biggest and richest metropolis in the world. Standing atop one of the city’s four gates, its founder proclaimed: Here is the Tigris River, and nothing stands between it and China.

In a flourishing culture of science, literature and philosophy, the citizens of Baghdad were fascinated by the world and everything in it. Inspired by their Prophet’s commandment to seek knowledge all over the world, these traders, diplomats, soldiers and scientists left behind the cosmopolitan pleasures of Baghdad to venture by camel, horse and boat into the unknown. Those who returned from these distant foreign lands wrote accounts of their adventures, both realistic and fantastical – tales of wonder and horror and delight.

Fidler expertly weaves together these beautiful and thrilling pictures of a dazzling lost world with the story of an empire’s rise and utterly devastating fall.

Way back in the Before Times, I named Fidler’s Ghost Empire (Reading Note 10) not only as my favourite book of 2019 but in my Top 10 books of all time. Richard Fidler is a radio presenter on the Australian public broadcaster ABC where he conducts these sublime hour-long interviews with relatively unknown but incredible people (on the rare occasion he will interview someone famous but only if they are amazing like his interview with Angela Lansbury). A few weeks earlier, a friend of mine asked me who would I invite to my ideal dinner party and Fidler was on my very short list. So when I heard that he would be the first author at my local (and reknowned) bowling club’s new monthly book group (interview with an author), I grabbed my friend Monica and I was there with bells on!

Fidler was interviewed by the incredible Michaela Kolawski (who has previously made space for romance authors on National Radio programs). Fidler in person is as fascinating as he is on radio and on the page. He discussed his new book, he spoke about his research, the digital deep dives through archives around the world during 2020, in those heart-stopping, fearful, isolated months, he just read and researched and wrote. At the event he told tales from his book, regaling stories of the emergence of the Middle East, and then becoming the cultural centre of science, literature and philosophy in the world. As soon as the interview ended, I whipped out my phone and reserved his self-narrated audiobook on my library app. Then, after the queue for autographs shrunk down, I got to meet the man himself and we had a lovely chat and he signed my copy of Ghost Empire (be still my beating heart!).

I only waited a few weeks before the audiobook became available for me to borrow. It started well but it took me a while to get engaged. The stories were fascinating but I couldn’t repeat them even ten minutes after I heard them. The only story I can remember is a horrific looting by British (but of course) archaeologists of a site in China. Was I too tired? Was I too busy to concentrate? I didn’t find it anywhere as compelling as Ghost Empire but I also didn’t have any expectations of it being that good.

Observation Note 116: Digital baggage* is not enough And then I worked it out. Fidler writes incredible and visceral travel histories. In Ghost Empire he travels to Istanbul with his 14 year old son, in Sagaland he travels with his friend Kári to solve a family mystery in Iceland, and in The Golden Maze he returns to Prague 30 years after his first visit in 1989 when the revolution broke out across Europe. Fidler weaves his personal awe, knowledge, his luggage (baggage?) and himself into his history books. Exploring roads and lanes and castles and churches, antiquities steeped with stories and anecdotes of the place is accompanied by Fidler’s sense of the world and his emotional connection to the places he stands in. Fidler weaves himself into the storylands of the cities, towns and countries which have drawn his attention, an obsession, a traveller who reads and takes notes, just like the travellers of old with diaries and notebooks, leaving an imprint of his own Australian perspective into the published world of these places.

I realised. The critical element that was missing from The Book of Roads and Kingdoms is that it was constrained by the Covid plague and the paucity of the digital experience. Fidler, like so many of us, could only write of the digital archives he was experiencing, the images he saw online. They are good enough but when you are conveying deep stories reliant on thoughtful listening, the digital doesn’t always suffice. At the book club event, he spoke of those locked-downed months and years of not being able to travel, and for a writer whose work is centred on their movement around the world, this must have been frustrating. In Ghost Empire his story of exploring Istanbul with his son ran parallel to the history of Constantinople. There is no such parallel in this book and I really missed the personal touch of modern traveller memoir in the historical landscape. It was impossible for Fidler to travel to the places he writes about in Roads and Kingdoms, our world required him to hide, locked away in his home like so many of the kings and emperors through history who do the same when plagues come to their shores.

I am not being critical of his writing (which is still superb). But this book highlights the difference that only digital document diving (a rich world in of itself) can make to a writing experience, and how Fidler’s personal experience of travel in his storytelling is as big a story as the history itself.

Two weeks in and I had to stop listening at the 75% mark due to reaching my due date on the e-loan which by then had a long reservation list. I would still recommend this book which I will eventually borrow again so as to finish it.

* I use baggage here for two reasons: firstly I feel the writer traveller fills their luggage with their stories and woes and worries and joys. Baggage is their analogy. It is no longer just a suitcase. It morphs into baggage as your home on wheels contains your life emotions as you navigate through the world. The second reason, of course, is to acknowledge that SuperWendy’s TBR challenge this month was on “baggage”. Handy!

2 thoughts on “March Reading 2023: Richard Fidler and baggage. Observation notes 115-116 and Reading Note 62

  1. Baggage is absolutely appropriate–wherever we go, physically or in our reading–there we are. Your experience of this book, and, from what you write, the author’s in writing it, includes the personal baggage of a global pandemic that continues to kill and disable people all over the world.

    Here’s to a better reading month, starting tomorrow.

    • Yes! You are right. The baggage of the pandemic has affected his writing. The storytelling is still good, it just isn’t amazing like his other books. I think most of us couldn’t manage to be amazing. The fact that he wrote during Covid at all is in itself an astounding achievement.

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