I just finished listening to Travels with Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski (1932-2007) was a Polish journalist who reported over decades on events in dozens of countries. Travels with Herodotus is a memoir about his career, interwoven with a retelling of his favorite episodes from the Histories of Herodotus. Poland in the 1950s was a badly damaged country. Much had been lost in the horrors of war, massacre, and purge. In particular, almost all Poles with much experience abroad, either diplomatic or journalistic, had been killed or had gone into exile. So when Kapuscinski began his career as a foreign correspondent in 1954 he had no mentors, no contacts, no one to help him learn his trade. When he left for his first assignment his editor gave him a copy of Herodotus. From that time on Herodotus was his companion on many travels, and his mentor in how to learn and write about the world. Herodotus' book, written in the 5th century BC, is a history of the war between the Greeks and the Persians, the source of almost all we know about Thermopylae, Salamis, and those other terrible events. But Herodotus was also an ethnographer who described the customs of many peoples, and a traveler who visited Egypt, Phoenicia, Italy, and many other places. I am not sure I would recommend Herodotus as a model for most journalists, but for Kapuscinski he must have been a great teacher, because he became one of the best journalists of the twentieth century.
Travels with Herodotus is not a great book. For me, there was too much Herodotus and not enough Kapuscinski. I have already read Herodotus, and I have a copy on my bookshelf if I choose to read it again. I wanted more about Kapuscinski's reportorial adventures. There are a few good stories here. My favorite was from Kapuscinski's first foreign assignment, to India. As he got off a train in Hyderabad he was picked up by the servants of the Maharaja, who whisked him away to the palace in a Rolls Royce. Certain this is some kind of mistake, he tries to explain who he is, but he and the servants do not have enough English between them to establish communication. So Kapuscinski can only relax in the back seat of the Rolls and wonder what will happen when somebody realizes he is not the dignitary they were expecting.
So Travels with Herodotus is entertaining at times, but mainly reading it made me want to dig out my old copy of Kapuscinski's The Emperor, a brilliant and wonderfully weird book about the last days of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, or maybe search for his other famous book, Shah of Shahs, about the overthrow of the Shah of Iran.