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BIGGER, BETTER, FASTER, MORE: Around the World at Superhuman Speed

September 30, 2011

One of the most commonly heard memes today is that the world is getting forever smaller.  The rationale given is simple: people are becoming more closely connected by technology.  While steam power made the transcontinental migration of previous generations possible, now further inventions have accelerated the pace and practicality of such travel.  Jet lag aside, within the span of one day, I could hop on an airplane, sipping a soft drink while reading an iPad on a trans-Atlantic flight to Europe, then immediately begin a GPS-guided tour of the Italian countryside in a rental car, leaving enough time to catch a late-show on the television in my hotel suite.  In the course of such a trip, at least six creations would have aided either speed or comfort to the journey—items entirely unavailable when Jules Verne penned one of literature’s classic adventure novels, Around the World in 80 Days (a free download from Project Gutenberg is available here).  This begs the question: What causes people in our modern society to continue to read and enjoy this Victorian travelogue?  Are there any lessons for this faster, smaller world after all?

A nineteenth century steamship arrives in Japan, as depicted in this 1861 print, "Gaikokujin sen no uchi: jōkisen"

The book itself is easy to understand, with the plot hinging on a single wager: that the protagonist Phileas Fogg can journey around the world in precisely 80 days.  Fogg is introduced as something of an automaton.  The classic picture of a British gentleman, he hangs with society folk at the club, plays whist, and runs his life like clockwork.  Having fired a servant for bringing his shaving water at 84 degrees instead of 86, he engages the services of a Frenchman named Passepartout, a strapping (if bumbling) fellow with a big heart (and correspondingly small brain).  Fogg bets that he can make his world-spanning journey not out of any desire to see the sights, but because A) he can, and B) he is enamored of the increasingly ordered, mechanized way of things.

Interestingly, the character of Phileas Fogg may have been inspired by an American businessman, George Francis Train, who assayed timed travels around the globe four times.  Though the connection is not entirely documented, Train’s first trip in 1870 predated the publication of Verne’s novel by three years, and made newspaper headlines around the world.  Verne did confess that the idea behind the story came from an article he had read.  Further, Train and Verne had a personal connection, as both men were friends of the French author Alexandre Dumas (fils).  Upset that a newspaper woman, Nellie Bly, had made the trip in 72 days in early 1890, his journey a few months later was completed in only 67 days, a miraculous feat for the time.  By 1913, the record was broken by three other men, including Broadway producer John Henry Mears, who reduced the time to 35 days.  Regardless of the facts or figures behind the novel, none of these journeys would have been possible without British mapmaker George Bradshaw, who published a timetable of Great Britain’s rail system in the 1830s and for continental European railways in 1847.  The concise schedules we now pull up regularly on Orbitz, Kayak, or Expedia as we browse for travel connections may find their origins in the handy tome once referred to affectionately as “the Bradshaw.”

But I digress.  Once Fogg and Passepartout set sail on the first leg of their journey, Verne’s book takes on a very episodic cast, proceeding almost like a sitcom.  Each chapter has a title describing its contents, in which something goes awry (often at Passepartout’s bungling hands) and someone (usually Fogg, with a carpetbag full of cash) fixes the problem.  In India, through a series of misadventures, they interrupt a human sacrifice and gain a lovely female companion on their travels.  Dogged by a determined detective all the while, they wind their way by elephant, steam ship, and locomotive through Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco, Omaha, and eventually back to London.  Aside from the exotic locales, one can almost envision Mrs. Garrett or Danny Tanner presenting a moral to the gathered ensemble as the plot threads are brought to a tidy mini-conclusion.  This is not to say the process of reading is monotonous; Verne’s jaunty dialogue and applications of (stereotyped) local color vary the proceedings, and plug along at a fast pace.

The linear progress of the narrative, ever eastward, shows an inevitable progress toward Fogg’s goal.  But the episodic digressions are actually where the charm of the tale lies.  Were the bulk of the story spent wandering the deck of a ship—watching the endless waves crash upon one another on the 22-day steamer trip from Yokohama to San Francisco, for example—we as readers would quickly tire of both Fogg and his journey.  Instead, we are regaled with colorful, unexpected episodes en route, as when a Mormon proselytizes the hapless passengers on the Union Pacific line, and is forced to watch his audience dissipate, one by one, until Passepartout is the only one remaining—and he too says “No, thanks” and vanishes.  Or when the protagonists encounter a violent mob in the streets of San Francisco, slugging it out over their choices for a minor political office.  For a readership that largely had not traveled, Verne successfully captured attention by providing not only fanciful scenery, but also authentic, amusing interpersonal interactions.  By the end of the story, love has (perhaps predictably) replaced travel as the focus—as our confirmed bachelor Phileas Fogg surrenders his tightly wound quirks to fall in love with Aouda, the Indian princess.

Original illustration by Alphons de Neuvill and Léon Benett, tracing Phileas Fogg's journey, from a French edition of Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days."

Lest I become Danny Tanner myself, the lesson learned from this adventure tale still seems quite relevant today—perhaps even more so.  As Phileas Fogg starts his madcap journey, he is controlled purely by the mechanical drive to achieve his goal.  Often, in our computer age, we too become cogs in a machine, mere tools to increase efficiency and better the bottom line.  Days are no more than numbers to be counted as we go about our business, recorded in papers filed, emails sent, products sold.  And as we ourselves travel, for work or pleasure, we often pack our itineraries as full as our stuffed suitcases, rushing to the top ten sights in just two days. Just like Jules Verne shows the gradual evolution of Phileas Fogg from automaton to kind-hearted soul, our attention to the rich detail of the world around us makes us more human.  Lingering in a Parisian street cafe for hours may provide richer vacation memories than seeing all six museums recommended in Fodor’s. True, technology allows us to plan, organize, and do things more efficiently, but this has not necessarily afforded us more time to do the things we love.  Instead, it has created a self-perpetuating cycle in which we struggle to do ever more things, ever more efficiently—and actually reduces the amount of time we have to just be ourselves.  To relax.  To see, to listen.  To explore.  To enjoy one another’s company.

Put simply, just because we can do something (such as journey around the world in 80—or even 4—days), it does not mean we should.  Sometimes greater rewards can be found in enjoying a process rather than achieving a goal.  As many grandmothers have instructed over the years, we could benefit from stopping and smelling the roses.   Though it seems odd for me to recommend in this electronic medium, I urge you to turn off the TV or the computer and take a walk.  Enjoy slow food with friends.  Perhaps your reconnection with the slower rhythms of life may require nothing more complicated than picking up a book…perhaps one by a nineteenth-century Frenchman named Jules.



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