Richard Bernstein

Charlie Rose was on my book-promotion schedule yesterday, and so I was on Charlie Rose. He asked me how the trip that I took in writing Ultimate Journey had changed me. And it did change me, though in ways that are not easy to describe. I tried my best to explain, but the main thing I said was, “Well, I got married.”

Well, I did get married after I came home, and I might not have had I not done my China-to-India-and-back trip. I probably would have remained stuck in what I psychobabble-ishly refer to as my commitment-phobia. My wife and I also would not have traveled together through the kinds of magnificently harsh landscapes that can bring you closer together. If you get along with your partner while trekking overland from New Delhi to Xian via the Kunjerab Pass and the southern oases of the Takla Makan desert, you’re likely to get along through just about anything.

I’ve been on Charlie Rose before and have always liked the experience. At the same time, probably because his program is so important in the book-flogging department, I have always walked away from his studio full of what the French call thoughts of the stairwell—the clever things you realize you could have said minutes after you leave the dinner party, and it’s too late.

In fact, it’s a rare author who can do as good a job talking about his or her book as the book can do talking about itself. And that, I suppose, is the root cause of my usual post-interview stairwell reflections. You promote your book in the hopes that you’ll convince somebody to read it—not just because you need the royalties (even if you do) but also because that’s why you wrote it, to be read. So, you do the promotion tour even as you feel that the few sentences you can utter under the pressure of television or radio time can never do the book justice.

I may have some special feelings about this as a critic of other people’s books. I feel, if truth be told, that I do a better job of crystallizing the essence of somebody else’s book than I do my own. I suppose it’s because I’m too close to my own work, my mind too cluttered with the stuff of its contents. I’ve had the experience with Ultimate Journey of reading a phrase of description that crisply captured a meaning that I have circled around wordily, cawing like a crow. Alexander Frater, my reviewer in last Sunday’s Times, used the phrase “attainment of serenity” to describe the goal of the Chinese monk whose seventh-century journey from China to India is the one that I retraced. That’s it! I said to myself. He was trying to attain serenity, and so was I! That’s the whole point. Why didn’t I think to put it that way myself?

I didn’t even think to put it that way on Charlie Rose. And, even though I blurted out, “Well, I got married!” I didn’t find a way to talk about the importance of the trip in achieving the necessary wisdom for that either. I didn’t feel there was time for the story of how before dawn one morning in a place called Kucha, my then-girlfriend, Zhongmei, took me to the train station and then left me there, since she had to get on a train in the other direction later that day to take care of some business at home. I didn’t tell Charlie how our little Xia-li taxi threw shafts of yellow light into the dawn’s dusty air. I didn’t talk about how I went off to my next destination by train and after that took a 14-hour nighttime bus ride through the desert from Aksu to Kashgar, mesmerized by the occasional lights of trucks wobbling toward us in the distance and seeming to take a long time actually to reach us.

I had many thoughts on that trip as the bus rattled down the desert road, shuddering past clots of men huddled around lonely fires with their camels looking down at them in that camellike way. But the main thought I had was of myself traversing the outlandishly foreign and faraway Takla Makan in one direction while Zhongmei traversed it in another, and I knew that I didn’t want to be going in opposite directions from her any more.

I suppose I could have told that story on Charlie Rose; I wish I had. But I also know that I wouldn’t have been able to tell it as well as I wrote it in my book.