Sir Richard Burton, Sir Walter Scott and romantic voyages


My friend who is afraid her grandson will never treasure a book is quite possibly correct in her fears.  Technology is moving very quickly and our whole society is switching as quickly to each new technology as it is introduced and leaving yesterday’s technology in the dustbin of history.  So even if her grandson does hold books dear, his children and grandchildren are very unlikely to know that feeling.  I cannot convince them it is wrong to drag a kindle through life, I can only tell them about my experiences sans kindle.

The books on my list of sacred and holy literary treasures usually came into my possession from some particular line of study, interest or relationship.  For example, I once loved a girl who admired Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman – so I searched until I found a reasonably rare – but not really rare or expensive – two volume set.  I meant to give it to her as a gift on her birthday, Christmas or Valentine’s Day, but our romance did not last long enough.  However I still have the books and even today I can hold one, read a few lines and remember her lovely young face. Some of the pages are still uncut (try and explain that concept to an e-book reader); when I choose I can cut one and be the first person ever to read that page in that book and at that moment I remember all of the uncut pages of romances long ago put away on the shelf and forgotten – it is a sweet moment indeed.

Probably the oldest and possibly the rarest book I have was given to me by my then-wife; Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott and published in 1817.  Everything about the book, its cover, type face and the color and feel of its pages instantly transports a reader into the 18th century where the tale takes place.  Reading it, I can feel Scotland and the romance of the clans, but I can also feel the 20th century and my romance with my wife, that too is a very sweet feeling.

In the last few years I have found a couple of other books that fit into the category of very special and almost sacred; the illustration above is from one of those, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah by Sir Richard Burton, originally published in 1855.  In the middle of the 19th century, Burton, a linguist and orientalist, disguised himself as a Muslim pilgrim and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.  He is believed to have been the first non-Muslim, westerner to visit the holy cites; if he had been caught he most certainly would have been killed on the spot.   My edition is a third, published 25 years after the first edition and therefore not rare or expensive – but it is still a ticket to Cairo, a caravan journey and the holiest city in Islam.

Sir Richard came into my life in the years after September 11th; after the United States invaded Afghanistan,  I started to study Islam and the Middle East – not just the 20th century version, but the entire 1300 years of Islam.  The study has led me to many, many interest and unusual  books, but few as intriguing as Burton’s.   My journey into Islam has been fascinating journey, frightening at times, but at other times exciting.   My trip with Sir Richard one of the exciting times, it was heart-stopping excitement the whole way.  I some times sit and gaze at its cover and think about the extraordinary effort and bravery of some people as they strive to understand the world and help us understand through their efforts; think of the Voyage of the Beagle (Charles Darwin) or  Alone (Admiral Byrd) – holding those books, looking at the drawings and reading the words lets me breathe the same air those brave men breathed.  My friend’s great-great grandchildren will not get on such inspiration from whatever device they use to read in the future, even if they are reading Sir Richard’s, Charles’ or Byrd’s tales.

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