I consumed a steady diet of science fiction in my first decade of life. Movies like Star Wars, E.T., 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Aliens seemed to be on permanent repeat at my house, so maybe that’s why Cloud Cuckoo Land is one of my favorite books of 2022. In Anthony Doerr’s latest novel, ideas of interstellar travel – whether by bird’s wing or spacecraft – propel a creative, interconnected story to an unusually satisfying finish.
Cloud Cuckoo Land spans hundreds of years, from ancient Greece to 15th century Constantinople to 21st century America to a spaceship in the future. In each story, brave and ingenious children forge lives and identities within worlds made complicated by adults. The story that catalyzes all the others is Aristophanes’ 5th century B.C.E. text, The Birds, in which men discuss a utopian dream of a city in the clouds. A foolish man named Diogenes catches wind of this supposed city in the sky and contrives to turn himself into a bird so that he can fly there while writing down his fantastical story. The so-called “Diogenes codex” is discovered in a molding library in Constantinople centuries later by Anna and Omeir, two children desperate for a way out of their unhappy circumstances. The story and the dream of a city of birds in the sky endures for centuries more, anchoring characters Seymour, Zeno, and Konstance to one another across time and place.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a love song to reading, books, and libraries as much as it is a book about human connections, language, and history. In one of my favorite passages, a 15th century bookseller tells Anna, “Day after day, year after year, time wipes the old books from the world… The things that look fixed in the world, child – mountains, wealth, empires – their permanence is only an illusion. We believe they will last, but that is only because of the brevity of our own lives.”
Both versions of Cloud Cuckoo Land – the original, ancient tale that we can never hold in our hands and the 21st century novel that we read in bed before drifting to sleep – remind us of the inexplicable power of stories to keep us tethered to each other and this world.