He should have risked more. It has taken him his whole life to accept himself, and he is surprised to understand that now that he can, he does not long for one more year, one more month: eighty-six years has been enough. In a life, you accumulate so many memories, your brain constantly winnowing through them, weighing consequence, burying pain, but somehow by the time you’re this age you still end up dragging a monumental sack of memories behind you, a burden as heavy as a continent, and eventually it becomes time to take them out of the world.
from Cloud Cuckoo Land
The Magical Power of Books
Books, and the stories they hold, have the power to enchant, encourage, entertain, and enlighten us. Sometimes they can help us endure what seems unendurable.
In his new novel, Anthony Doerr, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning All the Light We Cannot See, offers a paean to books and their magical power, and dedicates this one to past, present and future librarians. Like literary Firestarters, books become the means for the imagination of the writer to ignite the imagination in the reader, lifting us out of our ordinary worlds into realms that we might never otherwise know and removing us—if only for a moment—away from our troubles and our worries, from our sadness and loneliness, and letting us live a different life.
It’s not a quick read. At 600+ pages, it is more like one of those large 19th century novels you settle down with, perhaps next to a fire, cup of hot cocoa in hand, and lose yourself for hours, wholly immersing yourself in its world of Dickens’s London or Dostoevsky’s Russia.
The structure is reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, where parallel stories from different times and different places occur simultaneously, connected by a common thread. Here that thread is a wondrous, mythical book titled Cloud Cuckoo Land and the impact it has on the rather bleak lives of several people: Anna, a poor orphan who discovers the ancient book during the siege of Constantinople in 1453; Omeir, a peasant boy conscripted along with his oxen by the sultan in the effort to besiege the great city (Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light, their two stories will fatefully merge;) Zeno Ninis, living a lonely life in 20th century Idaho, becomes fascinated by the book and sets out to translate it into English after encountering the ancient text while a prisoner of war in Korea; and Konstance, a teenage girl, part of the latest generation traveling on the spaceship Argos, “an interstellar ark,” that departed a dying earth to reach Beta Oph2 in 592 years.
Cloud Cuckoo Land becomes a celebration of books and how they provide not simply an escape from one’s world, but an escape into other worlds--worlds where there is more beauty, more mystery, more love, more kindness and compassion, more adventure and heroism than the one the reader physically inhabits. It is why many of us started reading in the first place. Books make life bearable, even when it’s not.
This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 15, 2022.) Reprinted with permission.