Literary Daybook, Jan. 9

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 9, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 9, a newspaper reports of the kidnapping of the American ambassador to Lebanon.
-- "Show Me a Hero" (1987)
by Alfred Coppel

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1324 Marco Polo died in Venice at the age of 70. "The Travels of Marco Polo" was dictated by Polo around 1300, several years after his return from decades in the land of Kublai Khan; it quickly became a widely read and influential book throughout Renaissance Europe. So dubious were some contemporaries of a great and grandiose empire in the East that they published Polo's account as "Il Milione," meaning "The Million Lies." Some modern scholars, suspicious of what isn't in the book -- any mention of tea, or footbinding, or the Great Wall -- also wonder if "The Travels" is reliable, or based on firsthand observation. Whatever Polo's weakness for caravan-stop gossip, or for the hyperbole that inspired Coleridge's "stately pleasure-dome" of Xanadu, his book conveys his amazement at more practical exotica: yurts, asbestos, paper money, even an efficient postal system. It also forewarns other adventure capitalists of what they might find on the Gobi Desert stretch of the Silk Road:

"... Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," email Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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