THE WAY TO XANADU by Caroline Alexander


Journeys to a Legendary Realm
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 In this enchanting book, Alexander (One Dry Season, 1989) chronicles her journeys to the exotic places that inspired Coleridge's masterpiece ``Kubla Khan.'' In 1797 or 1798, in an opium-induced reverie, the poet wrote of Xanadu, with its ``walls and towers...girdled round,'' its ``caves of ice,'' its ``mighty fountain,'' and ``Mount Abora.'' Yet the poem's most arresting images are based not on actual visits made by Coleridge, but on written accounts of them penned by others--from Marco Polo to 18th-century American botanists. Thus, Alexander offers as much an exploration of actual geographical terrain as a wide-ranging account of the textual sources that inspired the poet (whom she artfully dubs an ``armchair Odysseus''). Using the poem as her map, she ventures through Inner Mongolia to the ruins of Shangdu (the proper name for Xanadu), Kashmir, Ethiopia, northern Florida, and finally to the poem's literal place of origin on the southwest coast of England. However, she often finds disappointment at the end of her journeys; the legendary Xanadu is little more than ``the bare bones of [a] ruined vanished city.'' But, she muses consolingly, ``I am not convinced that the map of...our tracks...adequately and completely describes the terrain we trod. The truest manifestation...may be that which none of us will ever see.'' Written in robust prose, her book is full of delightful and surprising details about the places today, and she poses thoughtful questions about the nature of experience: Does the real world ever live up to our imaginings, the fantastic visions of our minds and the accounts wrought from them? Though Alexander's journeys sometimes fall below her expectations, the same could scarcely be said of her fine book. The Way to Xanadu is a testament to one woman's dauntless intellectual curiosity and an exquisitely crafted paean to a great poem and to the timeless march of human inquiry and imagination.

Pub Date: June 14th, 1994
ISBN: 0-679-41900-4
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1994


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