Literary daybook, Jan. 9

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 9, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 9, a newspaper reports 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," dictated by Polo around 1300, several years after his return from decades in the land of Kublai Khan, became an influential book in Renaissance Europe. So dubious were some contemporaries of a vast and grandiose empire to 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 foot binding, or the Great Wall -- also wonder how reliable the "Travels" is, or if it is based on firsthand observation. Apart from any weakness for caravan-stop gossip or hyperbole, Polo's book conveys his amazement at not just imperial ostentation but day-to-day living -- yurts, asbestos, paper money, even an efficient postal system. Here is his forewarning and practical advice to other adventure capitalists who might find themselves on the Gobi Desert stretch of the Silk Road:

"When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason -- falling asleep or anything else -- he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this ... 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."

Four centuries after Polo's return, 25-year-old Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his "Kubla Khan" fragment. Coleridge was 25, the same age that Polo was when he set out, but this was armchair-traveling, inspired by opium and a reading not of the "Travels" but of "Purchas His Pilgrimage," a travel book written in the early 17th century. From one sentence there -- "Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto" -- Coleridge fashioned one of the more famous openings in Romantic poetry:

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea ..."

-- Steve King

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

By the Salon Books Editors

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