He was my first favorite author, but I didn’t even know his name.
My mother loves to tell the story: we were on a family trip to Washington, DC circa 1978. It was my first time on a train, and the first time I think I ever saw snow. We toured the city in taxicabs and buses and on foot, gawked at the monuments along The Mall.
“That’s the Hirshhorn Gallery,” I said.
“That is the Smithsonian Building.”
“That is the National Gallery of Art.”
I knew them all, precocious little tyke that I was. In mom’s version, it was because I was somehow advanced for my age. But in my version, it was simply because for a month or so prior to that trip, I had been nose-deep in a book called This is Washington, D.C. by someone I knew for years only as M. Sasek.
I was captivated by the book, and by Sasek’s eccentric, whimsical artistic style. Sasek (Šašek in Czech) was born in Prague, and he treated all of his subjects the way an outsider would, with wonder and surprise, and not a trace of world-weary cynicism. He would visit his subjects for a few weeks at a time, wander and sketch the city by day and return to his hotel room to paint into the night. He took places for what they were, received them with a sense of innocent enthusiasm, and gave them back to us as if to say, “you really have got to see this.”
I never knew a single thing about the man behind the book, but felt immediately that I loved him.
He drew like I drew, or wanted to. His human figures were stylized, comic, his architectural drawings simple and unfussy. His cars were the best: they captured the winged style of the 1950s and 1960s, when cars and buses were still works of art. His colors were bright, inviting, true. When I saw the Smithsonian Institution for the first time, it was exactly as I had seen it in This is Washington D.C. I wanted to be able to draw like Sasek, but he fired in me something else: a sense of wonder at the world—or what later academics would unimaginatively call “the built environment.” He was the first one to inspire in me a fascination, which I have never outgrown, with one of the great universal works of human art—universal as a form but unique in every single one of its instantiations—the city.
He also wrote books about whole countries (Ireland, Israel, Texas) and quasi-cities (The United Nations, Cape Kennedy) but at the heart of his work was a child-like fascination with living forms of human community that take an architectural form. He showed architecture as making certain forms of life possible, forms which could not be possible in exactly the same way in other places. Sasek communicated not just a city’s monuments but its secret life. An image of the White House is juxtaposed with one of three policemen, each of a different race, talking about the latest gossip. Another two-page spread shows the majestic, Seneca red sandstone Smithsonian Castle and multi-colored brick Arts and Industries Building alongside a dark-skinned man blowing up colorful striped balloons for kids like me.
Sasek had come from one of the world’s great cities, and that would have been enough for most people. But something in his own, mostly unknown history in Prague drove him to seek out other cities of the world, to offer them up to us as worthy of fascination, to show them to us as he found them, and invite us into them. He left us his own vision of other places: Greece, Cape Kennedy, Texas, Munich, Edinburgh, London, Rome, Historic Britain, Israel, Paris, Venice, Australia, Ireland, New York, The United Nations, Hong Kong, San Francisco.
But what Sasek never showed us was his own hometown. He never wrote This is Prague. I wonder how he would have seen his own birthplace, how he would have painted and narrated it as an insider, knowing all its dark secrets that only come from familiarity. But he didn’t tell us.
When I was in D.C. then, Sasek had given me a visual grammar, a code book to the city. He drew places for me and said, “this is X.” I had them imprinted on my brain when wandering The Mall, the National Gallery, seeing the Hope Diamond. Sasek’s “this is” became my “that is,” as I pointed out—I am sure to the annoyance of my parents and brother—the sites that Sasek had already told me I should see. I was seeing in real life what I had only seen in a book. This is Washington D.C. allowed me to be a different kind of reader, not just of a book, but of an actual place.
This became that.
The same thing happened when we visited Cape Kennedy in Florida. I had devoured Sasek’s book on it, which became the whole reason I begged my parents to take us there. This is Cape Kennedy (reissued as This is the Way to the Moon in 2009) was published in 1963, years before the Apollo missions would transform Cape Kennedy from a site of technological possibility to a near-holy site of human aspiration, a portal from one world to another.
Sasek was attentive to minute details: not just the scientific interest of the statistics of the Atlas rocket (weight—264,000 lbs.; thrust—360,000 lbs.; speed—17,400 m.p.h.) but the human ones: a boy perusing a rack of postcards, the Church of Our Saviour’s fundraising chart in the shape of a rocket, a Manhattan boy on the beach, a toy rocket in his hand, dreaming of flying to the moon.
Sasek’s cities became more than tourist destinations for me: they were sites of pilgrimage. I wanted to visit every place he had written about and painted. And when I discovered Sasek’s books on places I had already been—like This is Edinburgh—the books became like gratuitous scrapbooks of my own voyages, but better than my own photographs, because they ensured that I would remember those places to be as enchanted with magic as they really were.
I ate up every Sasek book I could find, but at some point in my childhood, the trail went cold, as it does in the dreary years of adolescence when you lose your orientation to the world. That’s what Sasek had given me: an orientation to a world that I didn’t yet know, a world in which surprises and wonders lurked in the open. But all was not lost in those wandering years. Shortly after I met Sasek, I also met another friend whose real name was also occluded by initials: J R R Tolkien.
It was only years later—not that long ago, in fact—that I learned that the M. stood for Miroslav. When my first son was born, I started looking for Sasek’s books to give to him. Fortunately, Universe Press (a division of Simon & Schuster) had begun issuing reprints in 2003. The first one I bought was This is Texas, which seemed a good place to start, since I was living in Texas at the time. I bought a reprint of This is Ireland and gave it to my niece. I gave a reissue of This is San Francisco to my brother and sister-in-law, who had lived there.
But eventually I stopped buying the reprints. The colors in them were nowhere near as vibrant as I remembered them in the originals. When the thought struck me, I would seek out a used copy of a non-reprint Sasek, in the hopes that my boys would be able to experience an author the way I had. But they were almost impossible to find. On the extremely rare occasion that I did stumble upon a copy in a bookshop—as in the extraordinary Books of Wonder on W. 18th Street in Manhattan—it was a prohibitively expensive first edition. I didn’t want a first edition; I wanted books for my children that were already well-used, which they would not be afraid to touch and handle and love with their own hands. Over the years, I managed to pick up a few copies in decent condition, with the hopes of building a complete collection for them to draw from whenever they felt curious enough, or a need to wander without leaving home. But after a while, I stopped looking.
Then, in July of 2017, in the middle of a long road trip with my family, I was in Sandy’s Books and Bakery in Rochester, Vermont. I was supposed to be writing, but could not help myself from exploring the somewhat random collection of books on the shelves. There was much of interest—a great poetry section, a couple of books by Richard Halliburton that momentarily tempted me, a small collection of mostly obscure local authors—but nothing I couldn’t live without.
I had almost stopped looking and started writing like I was supposed to. And there, on the top shelf, in a place where it probably should not have been: a mildly battered 1966 edition of This is Cape Kennedy, a piece missing from the bottom of the spine and a piece of packaging tape holding together the top. I may have been shaking a little when I pulled it down. This was the same book I had read when I was a boy like my own sons. I may have even imagined for a moment that was the exact same copy. It wasn’t priced, and thankfully the bookseller did not realize what she had, or how much I was willing to pay at that particular moment, in that particular place, for that particular book. The cashier talked it over briefly with a manager-type, who was in the middle of steaming milk for someone else’s latte.
“Eight dollars seem fair to you?” she asked.
I do not think my boys shared my giddy excitement when, later, I slyly lifted the book from the brown paper bag, as if unveiling a holy relic. It seemed as if it was just “that book” to them.
But I was not concerned. Because I know Miroslav Sasek.
Months later, I go into my ten-year-old’s room, looking for the book.
“Henry,” I say, “have you seen that Sasek book on Cape Kennedy?”
“Oh,” he says, extracting the book from in between his mattress and bed-rail.
Read more about Miroslav Šašek at The Sasek Foundation.