Hilton's Lost Horizon is often credited with being the origin of the Shangri-La myth, and indeed it is a compelling story. Written in the 1930s, the book is both a product of the turmoil and chaos created by the First World War and subsequent worldwide depression and anticipatory of the conflagration to come. Nestled in-between in both time and place is Shangri-La - an oasis of calm and "moderation" in a world of excess and fanaticism.
Four people, the world weary Conway, his deputy Mallinson, a 1930s American Bernie Madoff named Barnard, and a missionary named Miss Brinklow, are kidnapped and flown high into the Himalayas. When their plane crashes they find themselves drawn into a secluded valley utopia where they find things aren't always what they seem.
Hilton does a wonderful job describing the beauty of Tibet, and has a way of inspiring, through Conway's own recounting of his adventures, a sense of wanderlust. There were times when reading this that I found myself actually holding onto images of white-capped mountains and green florid valleys with incredible vividness and a growing desire to just be out of doors (this book would make excellent camping reading). There were moments of Western Eurocentrism, as to be expected of a 1930s novel that mainly centers on a British consul's adventures in areas of their far reaching empire, and occasionally the dismissive tone of the narrator toward native Tibetan society and culture were annoying. But, again, one has to remember the context of its construction, and at that, these attitudes become part of the story itself in it's theme of East vs. West. Many of the characters represent the dichotomies of those two cultures and Hilton consciously blends them to produce a utopian world in the valley in-between those two worlds. Shangri-La has running water and heated plumbing, combined with lonely solitude and contemplation reminiscent of a Buddhist monastery. It combines a feudal agricultural economy and authoritative political system, while simultaneously allowing for the absolute freedom of individuals living in the valley.
Throughout, one gets a sense of a sad desire to avoid what Hilton can see on the Horizon: the Second World War - this is especially so once the lamas reveal what the purpose of Shangri-La actually is. Aside from all the social and cultural commentary the book provides, Lost Horizon is just a really fun mystery that reminds one of the old travel novels of the 19th and early 20th century, when there were still places to be explored and customs that seemed odd. It definitely was the perfect follow-up for Moloka'i and if anything has stoked my desire to read more good historical fiction.