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A Sense of Direction

I’m about 90 pages into Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful. It came out three months ago and promptly got a brief review in The New Yorker. As explained there,

Lewis-Kraus moved from San Francisco to Berlin and then set out on a series of pilgrimages: Camino de Santiago, in Spain; Shikoku, in Japan; and Uman, in Ukraine. He makes the three treks–Catholic, Buddhist, and Jewish, respectively–as a secularist, hunting for clarity while nursing his blistered feet. … Perhaps by design, the writing–beautiful and often very funny–frequently mimics the setting: during the Berlin segment it’s restless, and, on the circular route of Shikoku, sometimes lacks direction. But on the Camino Lewis-Kraus weaves a story that his both searching and purposeful, one that forces the reader, like the pilgrim, to value the journey as much as the destination.

I downloaded the first portion of the book in June, started it, but decided to defer reading it, or perhaps not read it at all. However, I kept seeing mention of it, including this interview of the author in Harper’s. Finally, last week, I downloaded the full book and began reading it.

Progress was slow initially, since I downloaded another book at the same time — James Sullivan’s Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry — and was alternating between the two. I wrote about Island Cup last month. It’s the account of the rivalry between the Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard high school football teams. My interest in high school football is close to zero. But my interest in Nantucket is high, and what especially appealed to me was the opportunity to learn about year-round life on the islands. Writer and Martha’s Vineyard resident Tony Horwitz explained in his WSJ review that the book

may surprise summer tourists, who associate Nantucket with the homes of whaling captains and with sunburned WASPs in salmon pants. The Vineyard is likewise known for its affluent ease, a retreat for the Clintons, Kennedys and Obamas. But as Mr. Sullivan observes, these crowded resorts have a very different character in fall and winter. They’re small communities, mostly middle- and working-class, with large immigrant populations, isolated by fog and water from what islanders call “America.”

With a visit to Nantucket coming up soon, I thought Island Cup would be useful remedial reading. However, my alternation scheme seems to have turned into a focus on Lewis-Kraus, with island football on hold.

What better timing to be reading about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, by the way, than during cycling’s Vuelta a España (which I wrote about yesterday)? We’re into the Vuelta’s second week, and this year’s route has been zigzagging across the pilgrimage route. Compare. Below is the Vuelta map:

And here’s the pilgrimage map:

Last Wednesday’s Vuelta stage began and ended in Logroño. Lewis-Kraus and his companion, fellow writer Tom Bissell, just passed through Logroño in a passage I was reading yesterday.

I feel like I’m still settling into the book’s rhythms and the author’s voice. The portrayal of Berlin’s art world, or the slice of it within which Gideon-Kraus lived, was puzzling, both off-putting and fascinating. I’m not far into the Santiago pilgrimage now. Mostly I’m learning about blisters. Plus the gorgeous countryside.

As a counterpoint to The New Yorker review, here’s an excerpt from James Campbell’s WSJ review:

[Kraus-Lewis] is a guy with a laptop and a phone that translates whatever he needs to say to the natives. In truth, Mr. Lewis-Kraus isn’t the least bit interested in the natives—neither in Berlin, where he starts out, nor in Spain, nor Japan, nor Ukraine, where he ends up. The people he meets are mostly people like him, restless in their over-gadgetized lives, hopeful of glimpsing a private self in the wilderness.

Maybe my reading Campbell in the spring is the reason I hesitated to get the book. I have it now, though, and I’m reading it.

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