Pico Iyer is a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He is the author of several books, including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and other publications and his most recent book is The Man Within My Head.

Kurosawa’s Japan Revisited

Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, 1952

Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) was the first film I saw after I moved to Japan in 1987. I recall how, whenever I’m asked why I left my secure-seeming life in New York City to move to a small room on the backstreets of Kyoto, I say that I didn’t want to die feeling I’d never lived. Perhaps something in me was already moving toward Ikiru even then. I chose Japan as the place to move to in part because it seemed to be a quietly realistic society inclined to see life within a frame of death.

Empty Cities

Pyongyang, North Korea, September 19, 2013

Any of us could list the differences between the two cities of mirages, Las Vegas and the North Korean capital Pyongyang. The one is a shameless efflorescence of capitalism that is, for its enemies, a glittering symbol of the decadence and emptiness of the West; the other the world’s last by-the-book, state-controlled monument to Stalinist brutality. Yet both cities are products of a mid-twentieth-century spirit that saw what power and profit could be found in constructing mass fantasies ab nihilo

An Unknown America of the Mind

Richard Rodriguez, 2002
It’s exhilarating to come upon a writer whose moves and positions one can’t anticipate. Writing of Las Vegas in his latest book, Richard Rodriguez dilates a little on Noël Coward’s stay in the Nevada desert (the British playwright found the gangsters there “urbane and charming”); he tells us about the …

Proust: The Accidental Buddhist

Valencia, Spain, 1933

Many a Tibetan mystic goes on a three-year retreat and comes back with a sense of stillness and attention that suggests great understanding, but most of these monks are masters of silence more than of the written word. The beauty of Proust is that he ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection, but brings his understandings back into language and episodes that anyone can follow.

Hyderabad in Five Colors

Laborers in front of an apartment complex for technology workers, Hyderabad, India, March 3, 2012

Every visitor who goes to India knows how the country refuses to conform to plans or international expectations; the only way to survive is to give yourself over to its way of being. Fight against the Indian way of doing things and the only result will be tears. Just as you have to turn your watch forwards by half an hour when landing in India, just as you have to check in the batteries from your camera as separate pieces of luggage, just as it can prove impossible to find a working Internet connection in a proud center of high-tech like Hyderabad, so every foreigner has to surrender and realize that things will get done in their own, unexpected ways. The very qualities that make India so culturally alive, textured and itself make it uncommonly reluctant to adjust to the economic rules and geopolitical norms of the world.

Cities of Sleep

An image from photographer Trent Parke's

I used to keep a dream diary when I was in my twenties and still under the spell of a boyhood ingestion of Jung, perhaps, or a cheap excitement about the dark. I stopped when I noticed that all the time and energy I was spending transcribing my dreams in the dead of night, before I’d properly woken up, was detracting from my daytime activities; the night was claiming me full-time, to the point where I could no longer do my conscious work.

‘Masters of Doing Nothing at All’

Unknown artist: View of a Road with Wooden Houses on the Hill of Noge, Near Yokohama, circa 1900; from the book Japanese Dream, a collection of late-nineteenth-century hand-tinted photographs by Felice Beato and others. It has just been published by Hatje Cantz.
Japanese literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too. There are few emphases in spoken Japanese—the aim is to remain as level, even as neutral, as possible—and in a classic work like The Tale of Genji, as one recent translator has it, “The more intense the emotion, …

Somalia: Diving into the Wreck

Pirate militiamen at a port in Hobyo, Somalia, August 2010
Nuruddin Farah’s eleventh novel begins with what quickly comes to seem a grimly comic scene. A hungry teenager, four and a half feet tall, but with “the face of an old man”—we know him only as “YoungThing”—is walking through a rundown district in Somalia’s capital, “hoisting a carryall bigger and …

The McLuhan Galaxy

Marshall McLuhan with televisions showing his image, circa 1967
It’s an easy trick, and an often potent one, to show how many unsettlingly accurate descriptions of our media-saturated, passive, and opinion-driven world came from Marshall McLuhan, and were coined over half a century ago. In his first book, The Mechanical Bride, in 1951, and even more in The Gutenberg …

Tibet’s Quiet Revolution

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, holding their mandatory

It’s been startling to witness mass demonstrations in countries across the Middle East for freedom from autocracy, while, in the Tibetan community, a die-hard champion of “people power” tries to dethrone himself and his people keep asking him to stay on. Again and again the Dalai Lama (who tends to be more radical and less romantic than most of his followers) has sought to find ways to give up power, and his community has sought to find ways to ensure he can’t. It could be said that almost the only time Tibetans don’t listen to the Dalai Lama is when he tells them they shouldn’t listen to him. Now, on the eve of an important election for Tibet’s government-in-exile, he has announced he is relinquishing formal political authority entirely—and the Tibetan government has accepted his decision, even as the move has alarmed many around the world and struck some as the end of an era.

On the Sacred Mountain

Colin Thubron in the Karnali River valley of Nepal, near the Tibetan border, May 2009
A powerful, unexpected scene suddenly surfaces near the beginning of Colin Thubron’s characteristically beautiful, though uncharacteristically haunted, new book of travel. As he walks through the mountains of Nepal, toward the holy peak of Mount Kailas in Tibet, he abruptly realizes that he’s only 140 miles from Naini Tal, the …

Going Mad for Greece

Henry Miller and ‘the Colossus’ George Katsimbalis, Greece, 1939
The last major story that D.H. Lawrence published, six months before his death, was set in the ancient world and, characteristically, preoccupied with resurrection. “The Man Who Died” is a typically wild and visionary piece, sensual and impenitent, about the risen Jesus meeting a priestess of Isis and, true to …

Secret Love in the Lost City

Orhan Pamuk, New York City, May 2006
Istanbul, with its many signs of the time when it was the center of the world, becomes something of a museum in the work of Orhan Pamuk, a writer clearly in love with memory itself, and his hometown, and everything that’s been lost there. In his 2003 memoir, Istanbul, the …

‘A Hell on Earth’

The Dalai Lama at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India, January 23, 2003; photograph by Manuel Bauer
“The situation inside Tibet is almost like a military occupation,” I heard the Dalai Lama tell an interviewer last November, when I spent a week traveling with him across Japan. “Everywhere. Everywhere, fear, terror. I cannot remain indifferent.” Just moments before, with equal directness and urgency, he had said, “I …

Royal Flush

Whenever a Japanese crown prince gets married, to this day, the new groom and bride have to crawl, on their knees, into a secret enclosure in the Imperial Palace to seek the approval of the prince’s official ancestor, the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The Emperor and Empress are, by tradition, not …

The Return of ‘The Snow Leopard’

The Snow Leopard is an account of an expedition high into the seldom-seen Himalayan land of Inner Dolpo, to record the habits of the bharal, or rare Himalayan blue sheep, and, if possible, in passing to glimpse the famously shy and evasive snow leopard. The book, which is just being …

Holy Restlessness

It is not answers that pull many people into the religious life, it is questions. The person who lives deeply and enduringly with, and within, a religion often finds that he is surrounded by ever more doubts as he goes on, not convictions. In an eloquent monk like Thomas Merton, …

The Knight of Sunset Boulevard

The classic British public school prepares its inmates expertly for taking on (or over) the world, and not at all for that half of the world known as the opposite sex. Its charges are trained, in effect, to see women as a foreign country (most of the old boarding schools …

‘A New Kind of Mongrel Fiction’

Michael Ondaatje’s novels are all about putting pieces together. Quite literally, because they proceed through a series of carefully shaped vignettes that the reader has to fit into a pattern; but more deeply, too, because their structure invariably reflects their theme. Nearly always they are about attempting to tie things …

Swans’ Way

Howard Norman’s novels are nearly all about hemmed-in, stifled people in the vast, silent spaces of the far north, whose quiet lives are thrown about by acts—or moments—of sudden violence. His characters are mostly shy eccentrics, engaged in occupations not so different from the private, controlling business of the novelist: …

The Buddha’s Cure

In his new book, Free World, Timothy Garton Ash remembers the friends he had behind the Iron Curtain who used to tell him, “We are the West trapped in the East.” There are many kinds of East, as Garton Ash quickly acknowledges, and yet sometimes they seem to be linked …

Fairy Tales for Grown-ups

A foreigner sits in a square in a border town, looking at the bright lights, the big hotels of the land across the bridge. He has been watching, as everyone in town has, a famous con man, in flight from his creditors, walking around the square with his dog, which …

Summing Him Up

“The critic I am waiting for,” wrote Somerset Maugham in a letter near the end of his life, “is the one who will explain why, with all my faults, I have been read for so many years by so many people.” The edge of defensiveness was unusual in a man …

The Perfect Traveler

“Then northward with the spring into Kashmir,” begins a paragraph in Frederic Prokosch’s 1935 book, The Asiatics[^*]: Past valley after lovely valley, shepherds and their flocks moving across the greenery in the day, men squatting by their hillside fires in the night. Soft-lipped boys with enormous turbans shrieking at us …

Passage to Bombay

Rohinton Mistry writes what could be called neorealist novels, in honor of the simple, moving tales of struggle and affliction that distinguished the Italian films of the early Fifties (and continue to this day in, say, the films coming out of revolutionary Iran). Though Mistry has lived in Toronto since …

Morning in America

Were an alien, in a happy state of ignorance, to drop out of the skies today and pick up a piece of the large, and daily increasing, oeuvre of William F. Buckley Jr., he would, I think, come to some interesting conclusions. Freed of preconceptions, knowing nothing about Buckley’s long-popular …

I Vant to Be Alone

Being alone is of all the states of grace the one most frequently discredited, or at least distrusted. It’s never easy to find someone who will speak out against family or community—the network, as it were, of human relationships—but the loner (or isolato, or solitary—all the terms have a faintly …

He Who Played the King

When Kenneth Tynan submitted articles on politics to Playboy during the Sixties, in his capacity as contributing editor, they were always accepted. But every time he offered the magazine an article on sex, as his late widow Kathleen records in her fair and forgiving biography,[^1] the upholders of the Playboy …