cover image The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise

The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise

Pico Iyer. Riverhead, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-0-593-42025-6

Essayist Iyer (A Beginner’s Guide to Japan) visits regions of religious import in this immersive and profound survey of earthly paradises. “I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict—and whether the very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences,” Iyer writes, detailing his travels to Ethiopia, India, Iran, and Sri Lanka and discussing how people there understand the concept of “paradise.” He begins in Iran, the “world’s largest theocracy,” and visits the Imam Reza shrine, finding in the “competing visions of paradise” that play out there affirmation of Persian poet Rumi’s exhortation to seek a personal heaven within oneself. In Sri Lanka, he visits Adam’s Peak—which Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus claim holds special significance—but remarks that the political violence in the country undercuts its idyllic pretenses and the “idea of paradise seemed... to move people to be not kinder but more reckless.” Meditating on his conversations with his friend the Dalai Lama, Iyer decides to “just let life come to me in all its happy confusion and find the holiness in that.” Iyer remains a cultural critic par excellence, matching penetrating insights with some of the most transportive prose around. This further burnishes Iyer’s reputation as one of the best travel writers out there. (Jan.)