Book Review: Out of Africa - #4 In My Modern Library Classics Challenge

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

“Equitare, Arcum tendere, Veritatem dicere” or in translation “To ride, shoot straight, and tell the truth”
Tacitus’s Latin translation of Herodotus’s history of the Persian wars, and a personal motto of Karen Blixen, who published in English under the pen name Isak Dinesen, as quoted in the Epigraph to Out of Africa.

The Book Review

Karen Blixen (or more formally Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke) published in English under the pen name Isak Dinesen. Born Karen Dinesen in Denmark in 1885, she and Baron Blor Blixen-Finecke relocated to British East Africa (to what is today the country of Kenya) and were married in Mombasa in 1914. 

With the backing of their families they bought land and started a coffee plantation. The marriage was not successful (he was a philanderer and gave her syphilis), and they separated in 1921. She became romantically involved with Denys Finch-Hatton after her divorce. Karen remained on the farm until grasshoppers, drought and the Depression forced her to sell. She returned alone to Denmark in 1931 where she spent the rest of her life.

Out of Africa is often referred to as Dinesen’s memoir of her time in Kenya. But while the setting is her farm in Kenya, the focus of the book is often not on her. Her husband is mentioned in passing only once or twice (the divorce not at all), and Finch-Hatton is discussed as a friend, who, unfortunately, meets his demise in a plane crash shortly before Dinesen leaves Africa.

There are mentions of a few other white folks, but the focus is primarily on the native Africans Dinesen encounters in her life on the farm. The book is a series of stories of happenings set mostly in and around the farm. It’s a vast landholding (6,000 acres) set high along the Ngong Hills near Nairobi. 

The whole country was part of a British protectorate. Within the country the British had established Reserves, to which they relocated the native inhabitants. The Masai Reserve abuts her land. Some of her workers are Somali, and come from the “Somali town” that “was further away from Nairobi”. On the farm a village of Kikuyu people live, and are referred to as “squatters”, who must provide labor to the farm in exchange for the right to live there. They are not landowners themselves. Natives are forbidden to own land under the laws of the Protectorate.

Within this colonial setting the stories of Out of Africa take place, and are relayed to us through the eyes of Dinesen. She is very insightful and sensitive to the customs and culture of those around her whose stories she tells. It’s clear that she has great regard, even love, for the native peoples. But her understanding of their motivations is that of a white colonist, and that does come through and colors the stories in the book. 

Dinesen is an effective writer. She is mostly straightforward in style in her storytelling, but she can get quite lyrical when describing the countryside or the wildlife. As the stories unfold (and they do so at a fairly languid pace) you get a clear picture of what life must have been like one hundred years ago on her coffee plantation in Kenya. It is such a different world, that, as I was reading the book I sometimes felt like I was reading a set of fantasy tales rather than a memoir. But a very well written and lovely set of fantasy tales.

If it’s not clear from what I’ve said so far, I will caution future readers that if you go into the book expecting to find the love story from the 1980s film of the same name you will be disappointed. The movie is based in part on this book, but also on Dinesen’s Shadows on the Grass and other sources. 

All told, I liked the book and would recommend it. But it doesn’t feel right to me to put Star ratings on classics like this one, so a simple recommendation will have to suffice.  

Classics Challenge

This is the fourth book in my 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge. I’m challenging myself to read at least one of my Modern Library classics each month this year. It’s part of my overall goal to read 100 books. 

I own over 40 Modern Library editions that I collected in my first years out of college. At the time I was buying them, I admired them more as “art” than as books. I just liked the idea of pocket sized hardcovers, which is interesting since at the time most of the books I was buying to read were trade-sized paperbacks. As art on my shelf, I haven’t ever read my Modern Library editions. So, it’s about time to do so now that I’m retired.

Book 1: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Book 2: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce
Book 3: The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

Steve's Book Stuff participates in affiliate programs for the booksellers asterisked below.  Purchases you make through an affiliate link will return a small commission to me, at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support, it helps me buy books to read and review!

Borrow or Purchase Out of Africa here:

📙  Borrow this book: Find out if your library has the ebook or audiobook available through OverDrive or Libby.

📘 Buy this book: Amazon* | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million* | AbeBooks* | Powell’s | ThriftBooks 

📗 Support Indie Bookstores: Buy this book directly from* or find an Independent Bookstore near you*

📚 Visit my shop to see all my reviewed books. 

NOTE: Out of Africa was originally published in 1937, simultaneously in English by Putnam in the UK, and in Danish by Gyldendal in Denmark. Random House published the book in the United States later that year. It was named a Book of the Month Club selection, which helped establish it as a best seller here in the US. 

My own Modern Library edition appears to have been printed somewhere between 1952 and 1966. This estimate is based on the dust jacket design, and according to the research on

Title: Out of Africa
Author: Isak Dinesen
Publisher: Modern Library (Penguin Random House)*
Publish Date: September 5, 1992*
ISBN-13: 9780679600213
Publisher’s List Price: $24.00 (Hardcover as of 04/2022)

*Modern Library is now an imprint of Penguin Random House (PRH). PRH offers a facsimile edition of Out of Africa set from the first American edition of 1937. The book bears the Modern Library imprint. (As of April 2020, PRH is a subsidiary of the privately held German conglomerate Bertelsmann.)