Walden in Africa & Other Diplomatic Readings

Among the 53 titles compiled in this Month’s Foreign Service Journal is Dan Whitman’s Answer Coming Soon. Whatever else it provides to those who read it, Answer undeniably will provide this: a reflection on the power of books.

The power is especially profound for those who spend their lives in places where electricity can be spotty and television available at the whim of unsympathetic bureaucrats. Whitman begins with Walden, in 1980s Brazzaville—

…in the drifting nights of Central Africa, to the song of the bullfrog in mating season, I took just one chapter per evening, and I think absorbed Thoreau’s tone and intentions, maybe almost as slowly as he wrote it. This was not a task, but a gain at no cost. The harried Westerner can benefit from time passing where the present has no set value, but is all and everywhere. This is the way humanity has lived in most places at most times.

The beautiful writing in this essay is a reminder of what we miss when we don’t read, when all the reading we do is online, the stuff of immediacy. Culling the unbent spines of American Information Resource Centers (libraries!) all over Africa (in Yaounde, Conakry, Accra, Lagos) Whitman finds peace in the work of Mark Twain, James Thurber, Saul Bellow—a range of writers to include Ulysses S. Grant and  translations of Proust.

Whitman’s work reminds us why writers write and why readers read, why the Foreign Service demands the company of those steeped in both. As I wrote of Whitman’s collection Blaming No One: Throughout Whitman’s work is the running joke on us all, like a mysterious jest between Kafka and Heller. We are both victims and playthings, survivors and the damned, discarded wrecks, hopeful remains of the absurd, of the tyranny of paradox, of surreal nightmares built by an invisible malevolence too great to care even about its own random cruelty. We are trapped by the absurd. That, to the uninitiated, is where the Foreign Service Officer excels: making sense of nonsense, thriving amid uncertainty.

And this, in part, is where the books listed in the FSJ come in.

The November issue is a resource guide for readers interested in Foreign Service-related books and themes. Biography and history, memoir (including Ambassador Jim Bullington’s look at expeditionary diplomacy in Vietnam, reviewed here) and policy, the compilation also includes 16 works of fiction to consider, everything from Foreign Service thrillers to cosy mysteries.

These are books of every sort, and antidotes to the busy world around us.

Flip through the listing and find something that will take you where Whitman went: “Rewards of reading hampered by distraction can be unsought, undeserved, but I recommend them to anyone who wants a truly cheap thrill. Turn off everything else if possible, and take the classics. They haven’t been replaced.”

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