Photo: Victoria Chudinova/Shutterstock

To Be a Citizen of the World

by Nikki Hodgson Jun 14, 2013

Wallace Stegner crept up on me, his name slipped into my hands at a dinner party. Perhaps it was a voracious appetite for new literature, or the vaguely familiar sound of his name, or the way my heart skipped a beat when the man next to me mentioned him, his blue eyes keenly fixed on mine with such an acute expression of wisdom and kindness that the moment was burned into my mind.

I don’t remember why exactly I went to the Berkeley Public Library and checked out every book available by Wallace Stegner. I just know that I did.

Curled up in an apartment devoid of furniture, I devoured All the Little Live Things, sped through a collection of essays, lay awake for hours listening to Angle of Repose on audio, and then there was Crossing to Safety. As the rain drummed down on my roof, sliding down the window panes, dripping in through the broken sliding glass door, I read by candlelight till my eyes stumbled over the sentence, “Anyone who reads…is to some extent a citizen of the world, and I had been a hungry reader all my life.”

The words entered my head like lightning splintering across billowing grey clouds, thunder reverberating against my skull. And then they lingered there. Those words, that line, became tangled in my ribcage, echoing a sentiment I had always been unable to articulate. At the age of 17, I threw a backpack and a box of books into the back of an old Chrysler LeBaron and spent the summer living in the Sierra Nevada. At the age of 19, I boarded a plane for Alaska. At 22, I moved to Germany and then to the West Bank and then to Switzerland and then France and then Israel.

When I first traveled, it was to set foot in the places that had become beloved to me through books.

There are so many reasons to which I could attribute my wanderlust. An insatiable curiosity, a love of adventure, a nomadic childhood, a restless spirit. But it wasn’t until I stumbled across Wallace Stegner’s words that I understood how deeply intertwined my love of books is with my love of the world.

Because it was not traveling that inspired my love of the world and the need to experience it. That inspiration, that love, pressed itself against my malleable heart the moment I learned to read. The same qualities that have made me a voracious reader have made me a natural traveler. The ability to lose yourself in another world, the empathy of something so wholly opposite of what you are, the desire to slip into another’s life and let their thoughts leave deep impressions. Ten years elapsed from the time I read Jack London to the time I set foot in Alaska, but the desire to press my fingers deep into the tundra, to hear the wolves howl, to feel the days stretch forward with too little light or too little darkness crept into my heart the moment I read about it.

The adventures of my adulthood started with a childhood full of books and stories, full of corners and tree limbs where a girl could escape for a few hours and transport herself to Japan, Victorian England, Damascus, the bow of a storm-tossed boat, or the edge of an isolated island. When I look back on my childhood, the memories of my favorite books are so wrapped up in my own experiences that it’s difficult to distinguish between the two.

I can see John Thornton and Buck as vividly as the teachers and friends that comprised my childhood, so many times did I imagine myself leaning over a dogsled, watching the muscles of the dogs bunching up under their heavy coats as we struggled forward into the biting ice of an Alaskan winter and the call of the wild.

When I first traveled, it was to set foot in the places that had become beloved to me through books. I longed to experience Jerusalem and Jakarta because I had already learned to love them. Growing up, I dreamt of Alaska, slept with novels under my pillow, memorized statistics, learned the vocabulary of a musher, held my imaginings close until I touched the tundra, knelt down alongside the glaciers, and let my thoughts rest on all of the novels and authors that had brought me there.

To find my own stories, I had to learn to see places through the words of others. I felt France through Victor Hugo, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Gustave Flaubert. In Germany, I reached for Hesse and Goethe. When I visited the UK, I only wanted to see where James Herriot had lived as a country vet, feel the disappointment and transformation of Elizabeth Bennet, recite Shakespeare’s glorified Saint Crispin’s Day speech and the life and battles of Henry V.

In Israel, pressed against the beige West Jerusalem stones, watching the market swirl around me and feeling S. Yizhar’s tumbling prose cascading over my thoughts, I felt the familiar disorienting sway of his works. Like jumping into the waves, lost in the lull of the ocean with only the vaguest notion of which way to swim. Once you learn to see a place through the lives of others, there is no going back.

When I am restless, listless, dull, and feeling boxed in, I run my fingers over the spines of my favorite books.

There is no greater vulnerability than handing your heart over to another person, no greater vulnerability than placing yourself in a new world and temporarily submerging yourself in another’s perspective. There is no greater vehicle for travel than imagination, nothing so profound as the ability to connect.

I don’t have the words for how these authors shaped me, how they transformed a hunger for literature into a voracious appetite for life. Edward Abbey, Willa Cather, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Jack London shaped me and cultivated the instinct that Stegner articulated. You don’t have to leave home to be a citizen of the world. A ravenous appetite for new perspectives is all that’s required because it is not the act of traveling that shapes a traveler. It’s the insatiable curiosity, it’s the hunger.

Reading allows us to authentically experience things we can’t even begin to imagine. Those childhood stories are our first exercise in relatability, cultivating the natural curiosity and strengthening our humanity — that profoundly unique ability to imagine things we’ve never experienced. Sometimes when dusk falls, shadows slipping across the walls of my apartment, I feel an inexplicable nostalgia, a faint sadness at the impossibility of being able to see or experience all the things this world has to offer.

But curled up with Stegner’s words, I realized that reading assuages this sadness. Surrounded by my books, a thousand lifetimes are within my grasp.

Literature is our world’s collective experiences and reading — that blessed communication — enables us to connect ourselves across time and space. What was it like to be a Kyoto geisha at the turn of the century? What does it feel like to stand on the top of the world’s most dangerous mountain? To live in the Congo under Belgian rule? To be a missionary, an empress, a eunuch in the Forbidden City? What lies at the bottom of the ocean and what does it feel like to be shipwrecked? Literature allows us to experience things as they were and imagine things as they could be. It is the documentation of humanity and the cultivation of possibility.

When I am restless, listless, dull, and feeling boxed in, I run my fingers over the spines of my favorite books. When I can’t jump on a plane and expose my heart to new places, I climb a tree, breathe in the dusty sweet smell of a library book and when I come down, nothing is ever the same. When I am broken down and despairing over some inconsequential thing, I reach through the pages and find a kindred spirit, another hungry reader, one more citizen of the world.

That liberation bursts into the shadows of my mind, erupting like a field of red poppies in the Italian countryside, a field I had imagined a hundred times before I ever actually saw it. It’s liberating to know that when I get stuck, there is an immediate refuge. That I can be a citizen of the world, not just as it is, but as it was and as it will be.

Discover Matador