fb-pixel Skip to main content

He always grabs a copy of Hemingway’s stories when it’s time for a move abroad

Darryl Kennedy

When journalist Peter Hessler and his wife decided to move to Cairo in 2011 an editor warned him that nothing ever changes in Egypt. Then came the Arab Spring, and everything seemed to change. In his new book “The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution,” Hessler recounts what life was like in the wake of the revolution. A longtime New Yorker staff writer, Hessler was the magazine’s correspondent in Cairo and before that in China. He reads from his new book at 7 p.m. May 7 at Harvard Book Store.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

HESSLER: A couple of novels. “Mating” by Norman Rush, which won the National Book Award years ago, and Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend.” Then for my work I’m reading “From Akhenaten to Moses: Ancient Egypt and Religious Change” by the German Egyptologist Jan Assmann.


BOOKS: How would you describe your taste in novels?

HESSLER: I tend to read realist fiction. I also like international settings. That is one reason I’m reading the Norman Rush. It’s set in Africa. I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity.” The main character goes to South America and meets with a Julian-Assange-type figure. There are long sections about his growing up under East German Communist rule. I liked these in-depth glimpses of other cultures.

BOOKS: As a former Peace Corps volunteer, have you found books that do a good job of portraying what that’s like?

HESSLER: There are quite a few of them. One of the famous ones is “Living Poor” by Moritz Thomsen. He was a volunteer in Ecuador. Paul Theroux’s Peace Corps experience comes across in a number of his books, especially his fictionalized memoirs “My Secret History” and “My Other Life.” “Whiteman” by Tony D’Souza is a novel based on his experience in West Africa.


BOOKS: What did you read before you went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer?

HESSLER: Jonathan D. Spence has written an incredible collection of Chinese history books, including “The Search for Modern China” and “God’s Chinese Son.” I read a lot of his books. I recall reading another wonderful book, “1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline” by Ray Huang. It’s a portrait of a moment of time when you can see this thing going south. That’s a great book.

BOOKS: What books have you taken with you to the countries you’ve lived in?

HESSLER: I always take a collection of Hemingway short stories. That was one of the first things I connected to when I was in high school, when I wanted to be a writer.

BOOKS: What are some of the books about Egypt that you often recommend?

HESSLER:In an Antique Land” by Amitav Ghosh, his first book of nonfiction. He went to Egypt as a grad student. For archeology, my favorite is “Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization” by Barry J. Kemp, which gets at how ancient Egyptians thought. “Nefertiti Lived Here” by Mary Chubb is a nicely written, well-observed book about life on an archeological dig in the 1930s.

BOOKS: What did you read when you lived in Egypt?

HESSLER: When I was there I wasn’t reading for pleasure. We studied Arabic. We moved there with twin toddlers. There was a revolution. I was trying to get a grasp on Egyptian politics. I did read about half of Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet” and really enjoyed it. Then our bags got stolen when we moved back to the US. I thought I’d get another copy and finish it, but I never got around to it. Then we got our stuff back. Now that volume has a sentimental value to me because it was stolen, but I got it back.


BOOKS: What is the reading culture like in Egypt?

HESSLER: There isn’t a strong one. Some of this is due to illiteracy. The rate is about 25 percent. I had a friend, a Norwegian journalist, who’d often ask me, “When’s the last time you saw somebody reading a book?” It was very rare. You’d see the Koran on a cabbie’s dashboard, but I rarely saw anyone with a book in his hands. It’s a big problem. I have no doubt it affects political expression.

The Boston Globe may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane’’ and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com