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A Sense of Direction

This first-rate travel book is – like all the best travel books – most fascinating when it has the author at its center.

By Bob Blaisdell / May 10, 2012

A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful By Gideon Lewis-Kraus Riverhead 352 pp.

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I confess it took me a few dozen pages to figure out that I was enjoying A Sense of Direction and about a hundred to realize how terrific and original and entertaining it is. I don’t know that Gideon Lewis-Kraus built that delayed pleasure into the writing or if it’s simply that the better we know him the more we enjoy him.

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He begins by introducing us to his dissipated late-20s artistic life in San Francisco and Berlin, where his ambitions as a writer have drifted into aimlessness: “As it became increasingly clear that my era of inconsequence was not going to end in Berlin ... I began to hope that it might end with Berlin. If moving to Berlin had not left me altered, alert and grateful and decisive, perhaps moving away would.” He and another writer decide the Buen Camino pilgrimage in Spain could be amusing, might give them “a sense of direction,” and so they venture off onto it. The satisfaction of grinding through a pilgrimage certainly includes the awareness that one doesn’t have to: “What makes it meaningful is that it’s really hard but it’s something anybody could do if he or she made the commitment to do it.”

The son of rabbis, Lewis-Kraus is ashamed of his ignorance of all matters religious, but he loves the directed-path ritual, which requires not believing but doing. As his younger, more even-keeled brother Micah reminds him, “You are not doing this to have fun or not have fun, you are doing this to see why other people do it, and why most people, at least sane people, do not do it. Don’t forget ... you did, after all, choose to do this.... Every time you don’t stop and come home you’re choosing to continue.”

Though we come to see that Lewis-Kraus is brilliant and funny, modest and earnest, he is also one of those attractive personalities who can rub friends and family the wrong way. “[O]ne of your problems,” his brother scolds him, “is that your hopes and expectations are consistently unreasonable. You think there’s going to be one moment where everything is finally going to be okay, once and for all.”

During his 40-day, sore-footed journey across northern Spain, he hears about a temple-tagging pilgrimage on a remote Japanese island and decides that’s what he wants to do, sort of. He has to keep moving; there’s a rhythm, despite the pain and discomfort of long hikes and awkward accommodations, that he likes, that responds to his brainwaves: “We’re walking quickly but time has begun to lengthen. Time has acquired a strange and spacious irrelevance, as if we could turn around in it. As long as we keep moving, time is kept at bay; when we stop, it catches up in a rush.”

Finally making choices that limit what he can do makes him more productive and purposeful as a writer. That is, he needs to write this book, but as is the case in other of my favorite travel books – from James Boswell’s "Tour to the Hebrides" to Vivian Gornick’s "In Search of Ali Mahmoud" to Ian Frazier’s "Travels in Siberia" – what interests Lewis-Kraus and us is less the places and roads he treks than he himself, the frustrated, skeptical seeker and the company he keeps: “I dislike travel writing about temples, or churches, or mosques, or architecture in general, or, for that matter, trees, or trains, or roads, and especially the Khyber Pass, in fact I think I only like travel writing when it’s not about travel at all but rather about friendship, lies, digression, amateurism, trains, and sex.”

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