photo: K. Dubiel

Bedside table #54. Wojciech Jagielski: I am putting off reading for pleasure until retirement

Reporter and journalist Wojciech Jagielski talks about his adventure with Hemingway and American literature, the role of Ryszard Kapuściński in his life, his childhood readings, and his ideal of journalism.

What's on your bedside table?

I have a bad habit of keeping several books on my bedside table at a time.

So, one by one.

First of all, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. This is one of my favourite books and finally, after many years, I dared to reach for it again. With trepidation, because not all beloved titles pass verification years later. I was afraid of a renewed encounter with this book. Unnecessarily so. I am reading it with great pleasure, probably even more than the first time. I find myself dosing my reading so that I don’t read it too quick.

Second thing, Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. I received it as a gift from my son, though of course I had heard about it for a long time. I am a hardened football fan, so the gift was spot-on.

The third thing on my bedside table is also football related - it's the latest issue of "Kopalnia". It's hard to decide whether to consider this publication a book or a periodical, but I'd lean toward a book.

You caught me in a rare moment when pleasure outweighs professional duty on my bedside table. There isn’t any book there right now that I have to read because of professional commitments. The vast majority of books I read are just out of professional need, I am putting off reading for pleasure until retirement. If I live long enough.

What do you value most about Hemingway?

Hard to say. To cover my incompetence, I sometimes counter such questions with the analogy of love at first sight. It's better not to wonder why we fell in love, because the feeling may dissipate. The Sun Also Rises has always been a special book for me, and at this point, I'm no longer trying to answer why. It’s just the way it is.

Anyway, not everything by Hemingway appeals to me.

And what was the first book by Hemingway that captivated you?

The First Forty-Nine Stories, definitely. I got it as early as in primary school as a reward for excellent results. I still have that copy, to this day.

I did return to The First Forty-Nine Stories too, over the summer. And also, with great trepidation. Fortunately, I found that they still delight me - maybe not all of them, but the vast majority. Reading them made me envious. It would seem that these are stories that everyone has lived through, witnessed, could easily write. But, when you try to do something like this, you realise how difficult it is.

Where did this Hemingway come from for you?

To be honest, I don't know. My mum was a librarian. She had a taste for native literature, so she didn't suggest Hemingway to me. Maybe it was in counterpoint to this that a whole bunch of American writers came into my life. Not just Hemingway. I was a very meticulous reader then, much more so than I am today, so I decided I would read them all. From Caldwell, through Fitzgerald, to Steinbeck and Irwin Shaw. And I have indeed read them. But please don't ask me why I read these names exactly.

I don't know where it comes from. Just like I don't know where my fascination with Africa came from into my life and not with South America, for example.

Maybe from Hemingway, actually?

Certainly not. Hemingway loved Africa in a very different way than I do. I find hunting disgusting and rejecting. I try not to remember that side of Hemingway at all.

What kind of reader were you as a teenager?

I read loads, but very chaotically.

I've never been drawn to sci-fi/fantasy. Although I do remember that it was already quite popular in Poland at that time. Many of my friends read it, and it was supposedly good literature. I once reached for Jules Verne. And I put it down. It's not my kind of literature.

After the American classics, I reached for the Russian classics. Also with a firm plan to get through them all. But I only got through Turgenev.

And Dostoevsky?

Snobbery must have taken over in me, for neither Dostoevsky nor Tolstoy attracted me. Everybody read them. I was interested in Turgenev because he wasn't that popular. Besides, I was always drawn to the melody of that name.

After Turgenev, my regularity dropped. I think it was because of a house move. In 1976, we moved from Podlasie region to Warsaw. This shattered my whole life up to then. I didn't develop good reading habits in the new place.

When a renowned journalist says that he reads Hemingway and it turns out that it was one of his first important readings, the question immediately arises: was Hemingway the reading that shaped you?

I don't think so. I read Hemingway purely for pleasure. At a time when I hadn't yet thought about who I wanted to be. I was 13-15 years old at the time. Maybe more mature kids already had life dreams, but I didn't think about such things. I mostly kicked a ball about.

It certainly wasn't under the influence of Hemingway that it occurred to me to become a journalist, writer, or war correspondent. These kinds of thoughts came later - it's even embarrassing to say how late it was.

I do have a ‘formative’ writer who influenced my decision about what I want to do in life, and there will be no surprise here. It's Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Do you remember your first encounter with Kapuściński's writing?

The first was Cesarz (“The Emperor”). This book already captivated me and shook me. But my real love for Kapuscinski began with Szachinszacha (“Shah of Shahs”).

I reached for this book in a utilitarian way - I was not yet fascinated by Kapuściński himself, because those were the times when Kapuściński could be read in newspapers. I bought Shah of Shahs, because I was writing for a student magazine about the Muslim revolution in Iran. It was the early 1980s, I think it was already Martial law. I remember having a huge problem getting to the sources. So, I decided to use Polish sources. Apart from Kapuściński, I bought the book Rewolucja w imię Allacha (”Revolution in the name of Allah”) by Wojciech Giełżyński. But it was Shah of Shahs that stunned me.

Before reading this book - I was in my 2nd or 3rd year of journalism - I was sure I didn't want to become a journalist. But after Shah of Shahs, the thought occurred to me that this is the kind of journalism I would like to pursue. It wasn't about going around the world or about Africa. It was about the way the story was told. Kapuscinski spoke about Iran in such a way that it touched on our issues as well. It was not non-fiction strictly speaking. It was rather allegory. After all, Shah of Shahs is not about the fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but about what a revolution is. Or about - this thought captivated me - what the first post-revolutionary Monday is. When the revolution is over, the barricades have to be dismantled and the leaking faucets or the city's garbage collection taken care of.

To this day, this is Kapuscinski’s book I value most.

Do you try to keep up to date with new literary releases?

No. I gave up. If I'm reading for pleasure, I very often reach for books I've already read. As is the case with Hemingway.

It may not be particularly constructive, but I don't agree that it's a waste of time. Every reading of a book is different, it all depends on the circumstances under which we reach for the book. From the reader's age, experience, mood, the weather outside, even the place where we read. Reading on the couch is different from reading on the steps outside your house.

I often reach for books recommended to me by someone. And I have several trusted sources. My mum, though retired, still reads a lot. My two sons devour literature. And although I know that a book that makes an impression on a twenty-year-old doesn't necessarily have to make an impression on a sixty-year-old, I often let myself succumb to this temptation. Also to have something to talk about with them.

What book have you returned to most often?

To Sienkiewicz's The Trilogy. As a young boy I read The Trilogy back and forth. I loved it, and since reading these novels requires absolutely no effort, I flew through them plenty of times.

As a little kid, I also read Alfred Szklarski's series about Tom Wilmowski and his gang several times.

Do you value Sienkiewicz's achievements as a reporter?

Sienkiewicz the reporter is not close to me. Because of the haughty tone with which he described non-Europe. He was a mediocre traveller who understood little but was puzzled by everything. And he shared this puzzlement with his readers. I don't value these kinds of books. I don't read travel literature at all. So as not to get annoyed.

As journalists or reporters, Prus and Reymont would definitely be closer to me.

And how is following non-fiction for you?

I try to keep up to date. Although I primarily read non-fiction about the regions I cover as a journalist. Africa, much of South Asia (from the Caucasus to the Himalayas), and now the Middle East.

I don't write about Indochina, but I am very interested in the history of the Vietnam War. Poland usually publishes good or excellent books on the subject, but sometimes a mediocre title is also published. Unfortunately, I’ve just come by such a mediocre title - and it's another book on my bedside table - Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden. I am very disappointed in this book. But this may be my fault; I have read other books by Bowden and should know what to expect. Or rather: what not to expect.

By the way, you asked about ‘formative’ reading. Perhaps it was the Vietnam War and the way it was covered in the United States that gave rise to the kind of journalism that I think is most perfect, is closest to me, and certainly shaped me. American journalists of the time covered ‘their’ war, America's war, but defended their independence. They did not write so that the war would be won. They did not succumb to propaganda. They did not glorify American soldiers. It was the first and perhaps last war to end because of journalists.

I also have tremendous respect for the journalism of that period, the kind of All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. I would recommend this book to any young person thinking about journalism. Firstly, to see what journalism can accomplish - bringing down a rogue president. And secondly, to see how terribly difficult journalism is. It is an arduous, glory-less profession in which a lot of time is wasted on confirming, checking, and verifying.

Bernstein and Woodward's journalism is something different from contemporary journalism. Today's journalism has strayed far from verification duties. It now delights in gossip and lies, dressed up in the better-sounding term ‘fake news’. If someone had suggested the term ‘fake news’ to Nixon, he probably would have finished his second term in peace.

There is a belief in Poland that the best book about the Vietnam War is Dispatches by Michael Herr.

I think so, too.

To me, this conflicts with what you say about arduous journalism to me. Dispatches is tawdry. There is little meticulousness in Herr's book and a lot of flaunting.

Yes, I understand what you mean. Perhaps I would indeed not say that Dispatches is the best book about the Vietnam War. Instead, it is the best book about a journalist's work in the Vietnam War. That legendary war correspondent.

There is nothing in Dispatches about how this war broke out, which battle decided what, why the Tet offensive ended the way it did.... However, a reader who previously knew nothing about Vietnam will get a more vivid and complete picture of the Vietnam War from Herr's Dispatches than if they had read a meticulous account full of dates, facts, and names difficult to remember.

I mentioned earlier that when educating myself about Iran, I reached for Kapuscinski and Giełzynski. Giełżyński wrote a compendium of knowledge about Iran. He listed names, dates. He pointed out exactly what stemmed from what. But for me, a reader who had not been to Iran before, it was the image created by Kapuscinski that remained in my mind.

Dispatches is like Shah of Shahs. We will not acquire knowledge of the course of the conflict from this book. But we will learn a picture of the war. Especially the picture as seen through the eyes of a war correspondent.

What has delighted you recently in non-fiction?

The book The Great War for Civilisation. The Conquest of the Middle East by the recently deceased Robert Fisk - one of the most distinguished journalists of our time. It's a story about the history of the Middle East and all that went on in the region after World War II. Fisk's book is a very personal story about the hypocrisy of politics, and I value it for that personal touch. I regret that this volume has not found a publisher in Poland.

And from Polish authors?

For the past two years, I have been working on a selection of texts by foreign journalists describing roughly the last 100 years of world history. For this reason, foreign authors completely dominate my reading. I hardly read any Polish authors.

If I were to mention one name, it would be to the detriment of many others. But I will mention a certain author. Almost privately, because we recently met in person. It’s Pawel Pieniążek. I have to admit that his texts didn't impress me much before. However, I take great pleasure in watching him evolve. I can see the tremendous amount of work that Pawel is putting into improving his technique. I really like his book Po kalifacie. Nowa wojna w Syrii  (“After the Caliphate. The New War in Syria”).

What interests you most in non-fiction, other than, of course, the region?

If I reach for non-fiction, it's usually because I'm interested in the events being described. Less often because of the names. Maybe it's because journalistic work is more anonymous than fiction. From non-fiction, I want to learn something, to find something out.

I was quite impressed by Jon Lee Anderson's book The Fall of Baghdad. This is a journalist's account of the last days before the invasion and the first days of the invasion. Anderson is not writing about the war, but about people living in the city under siege. From his book, readers not only learn why war broke out and what Saddam Hussein's regime was all about, but they also have the opportunity to live the experience of a man waiting for the war to break out.

It is surprising that a comprehensive Polish book on the invasion of Iraq has not yet been written. After all, we participated in that war.

Plenty of books have been written describing the authors' experiences. Or individual battles. I would recommend perhaps Mariusz Zawadzki's book Nowy wspaniały Irak (“Brave New Iraq”). Unfortunately, Zawadzki did not focus on our participation. He rather attempted to answer the question of what the war was about.

Please note that a comprehensive book on our presence in Afghanistan has not been written either. And yet the Polish military was stationed in Afghanistan much longer than in Iraq. No one has written a book about the politicians who got us into this war, thinking that war is a game where no one really dies. This is the kind of book I would love to read.

Do you read in Polish or in foreign languages more often?

Nowadays, I read almost exclusively in Polish. But six months ago, I was submerged in foreign books - Russian and English.

Do you pay attention to the translation?

I do, but unfortunately not enough to remember the names of the translators. For example, I think that Dispatches was beautifully translated into Polish. However, I can't tell you who did this translation (Krzysztof Majer – T.P.’s note, unfortunately I had to check it myself too).

You mentioned your love of football at the beginning of the interview. I, on the other hand, have never been interested in sports literature. Could you recommend a title for me?

Angels with Dirty Faces by Wilson Jonathan, translated by my editorial colleague Michael Okonski. History and the various pasts and futures can be told from many points of view. And this story of Argentina's history as told through the stadiums, football, the football clubs is fascinating. I learned more about Argentina from Angels with Dirty Faces than from any other book about the country (though I haven't read many of them, I must admit).

And what do you look for in fiction?

I am enthralled by the real world created in the author's head. I am a big fan of the realistic novel. Perhaps my first encounter with American realists had a much bigger impact on me than I think?

I myself describe what I saw, what exists, what really happened. I wouldn't be able to create a full, convincing represented world. I envy fiction writers for this talent. Writers who can create such an evocative world that we believe in it more than the truth. People who write novels probably spend more time on documentary work than, I'm ashamed to admit, journalists and reporters, for whom it's a professional duty.

Do you tolerate e-books?

Only professionally. If I know I need to read something - such as the selection I mentioned - I force myself to use an e-book reader. When I read for pleasure, I always reach for the paper.

Books must have completely colonised your home then?

We are engaged in family hit-and-run tactics. My wife and I buy a lot of books, but our sons are more aggressive readers. They don't have the selectivity in them that you develop with age. Plus, they're both collectors. Whenever they come to visit us in the countryside, be it for a short visit or a vacation, they bring books with them. Supposedly interesting, supposedly for us, supposedly as a gift, but actually, they get rid of them from their own homes. They know very well that I can't throw books away.

Fortunately, my the librarian mum taught me that books can be donated to libraries. We have friendly institutions. In Warmia-Masuria, there are many less well-stocked points, which willingly accept donations.

We also donate books to coffee shops, clubs, and bars. You can find a bookshelf more and more often in such places.

Since you are a paper book worshipper, I suppose you don't write or draw over them?

I underline, but only with a pencil. And gently, so that it can be easily erased. You mustn’t scribble on a book with a pen.

Do you take notes as you read?

Whenever I read something for professional reasons. Much less often when I read for pleasure. But if I come across a beautiful sentence, of course I reach for my notebook and write it down.

What are your reading plans for the future?

I would like to read a good biography of Tadeusz Kosciuszko. This figure fascinates me. A Polish national hero completely incompatible with our canon. He is probably the only one of our compatriots who is considered one of the founding fathers of the most powerful empire in the world. I don't have any particular title on my mind, though.

Inteviewer: Tomasz Pstrągowski

Translated by Justyna Lowe