When the High Lama asked him whether Shangri-La was not unique in his experience, and if the Western world could offer anything in the least like it, he answered with a smile: ``Well, yes - to be quite frank it reminds me very slightly of Oxford.''In 1939, the first book to be published in paperback form was Lost Horizon, written by James Hilton (though it was originally published in 1933). The adventure story is framed by a prologue and an epilogue narrated by a neurologist. During a dinner with old school chums (who now have little in common), the name Hugh Conway comes up, a British consul who disappeared under hushed-up circumstances involving an abducted airplane. Later that evening, the neurologist's friend Rutherford tells him a story... Hugh Conway did not entirely disappear because Rutherford had found him in a Chinese hospital suffering from amnesia (several months after his initial disappearance). Rutherford goes to some trouble arranging for Conway to return to the Western world with him when one night, Conway regains his memory, unfolds his story, and gives Rutherford the slip. It is Conway's story that is the meat of the tale, an adventure that presents the reader with a possible paradise.~ James Hilton, Lost Horizon
Conway was in the plane with three other passengers when it was abducted and flown to an unknown location in Tibet. They were evacuating Baskul after a revolution during the British Raj. After a crash landing, the pilot dies but instructs the four to seek shelter at the lamastery named Shangri-La in the shadow of the mountain, Karakal. They are greeted by an entourage, including a postulant named Chang who speaks impeccable English, and they are taken to the lamastery where all the comforts of the modern world exist. There is peace, quiet, and total freedom to pursue all the delicate endeavors that we always seem to put off in our daily lives... learning languages, reading extensively, playing music, practicing meditation. And then there is the possibility of separating to such a degree from the world that it's possible to live long enough to have the time to savour all these delicate pleasures...
As Conway is presented with what could be his perfect idea of paradise, the reader reflects on what would consist of his or her own paradise... or at least I think it's a perfectly natural thing to do. Would your paradise be so intellectual? So free from personal ties save that of cordial friendships? So unaccommodating to ambition? (The book comments that the lamas believe it takes about five years for a real attachment to something in the outside world to fade into the pleasant, melancholic memory of those relationships.)
It is gradually apparent that these four outsiders will not be leaving Shangri-La, yet one of their company is not content with this idea. Conway enters this lamastery after WWI but before WWII -- and the high lama seems very aware that tensions are escalating in the world outside; his solution is to preserve their delicate life and hope that the bombs will not find their secluded valley. In response to that, I can't help but think of the Mother Superior in the Sound of Music who insists to Maria that "these walls were not meant to shut out problems. You have to face them." Perhaps Shangri-La is not my personal paradise, then.
On that issue, one might note that FDR took "Shangri-La" as the name for the Presidential retreat (later renamed Camp David). I dug up this article from a few months ago that discusses Lost Horizon & the current war over the name "Shangri-La" being fought between a few Chinese cities, not simply for the honorary right but for the money that comes from being a tourist destination. I would emphasize to these folks that Hilton's novel is a fantasy and while it was inspired by National Geographic stories and photographs, it still means he made up Shangri-La.
But no matter what, I found the book to be a very fast read that provoked a number of casual musings on the topic of utopian societies and personal preferences that might suggest "paradise."