A Sense of Direction
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In medieval times, a pilgrimage gave the average Joe his only break from the daily grind. For Gideon Lewis-Kraus, it promised a different kind of escape. Determined to avoid the kind of constraint that kept his father, a gay rabbi, closeted until midlife, he moved to anything-goes Berlin. But the surfeit of freedom there paralyzed him, and when a friend extended a drunken invitation to join him on an ancient pilgrimage route across Spain, he grabbed his sneakers, glad of the chance to be committed to something and someone.
Irreverent, moving, hilarious, and thought-provoking, A Sense of Direction is Lewis-Kraus's dazzling riff on the perpetual war between discipline and desire, and its attendant casualties. Across three pilgrimages and many hundreds of miles-the thousand-year-old Camino de Santiago, a solo circuit of eighty-eight Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and, together with his father and brother, an annual mass migration to the tomb of a famous Hasidic mystic in the Ukraine-he completes an idiosyncratic odyssey to the heart of a family mystery and a human dilemma: How do we come to terms with what has been and what is-and find a way forward, with purpose.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus has written for Harper's, The Believer, The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, n+1, McSweeneys, The Nation, Bookforum, Slate, and other publications. A 2007-8 Fulbright brought him to Berlin, a hotbed of contemporary restlessness where he conceived this book and more or less continues to live.
- What brings Gideon Lewis-Kraus to Berlin? What is he looking to find there?
- How does the reality of his time there compare to his fantasy of it? What about Berlin life suits him, and what drives him to leave?
- What is the connection between Lewis-Kraus's attitude toward how he should live as a twenty-something and his father's decision to come out as a gay man in midlife? Do you find his anger toward his father justified?
- What are the rewards of the Camino de Santiago, and what are the difficulties? Were you surprised by Lewis-Kraus's experience of pilgrimage?
- How did Lewis-Kraus's motivations differ from those of the other pilgrims he encountered on the Camino? On the Shikoku pilgrimage? Did they ultimately seem legitimate to you? Why or why not?
- Productivity (or the lack of it) is a big theme in the book. What do you think Lewis-Kraus concludes about it in the end? Do you agree?
- Lewis-Kraus travels with various friends and family members on all three pilgrimages, and meets a number of fellow travelers along the way. What is the effect of pilgrimage on established bonds? On new acquaintanceship? How are the attachments formed or deepened on pilgrimage different from those made in everyday life?
- What did pilgrimage mean and do for an early modern person, burdened by, as Lewis-Kraus puts it, "the monotony of routine," and what does it mean and do for someone living today, burdened instead by "the abundance of choice"? What does it ultimately mean for Lewis-Kraus (who at one point calls it "a pretext.a way to have a trip with some higher motive")?
- Why do you think Lewis-Kraus decides to go on the final pilgrimage in Uman, and how is this last pilgrimage different from the first two-physically, culturally, and emotionally? Why does Lewis-Kraus say it was the most important of them all?
- What does Lewis-Kraus learn about himself, his father, and their relationship on the last pilgrimage in Uman? What surprises, disappoints, and satisfies him? How have his experiences on the Camino and Shikoku prepared him to process and accept what he learns? In the end, what does "pilgrimage" do and mean for him?