For years, I’ve loved reading about Arctic and Antarctic exploration. There’s something about true north – the ice-clogged oars, the chapped and salty lips, the perfectly clear and germ-free atmosphere (when it is not opaque with howling storms), the brutal stripping away of personal possessions and good sense until only the naked, the mad, and the noble remain – that compels me. (I share this taste with good company: Annie Dillard and Anne Fadiman are also collectors of this strange corner of creation.) The explorers, most of them at the end of the 19th century, give their lives, and sacrifice the lives of others; they sail off into the pack ice and are never seen again; they cross uncrossable islands and eat their own gloves and carry their monogrammed silver over countless exhausting miles. And in the end, they step outdoors; they may be some time.
All this is to say that from time to time, I get a new small cache of books about this kind of exploration. It’s a fascination that doesn’t seem to lose its appeal for me. I have three or four books in my TBR pile now, some of them new, some of them classics of the genre. The one I just finished (invitingly small) was The Impossible Journey of Sir Ernest Shackleton, by William Bixby.
Despite my love for the subject, this book was a bit of a disappointment. Of course, Shackleton’s journey was impossible. Of course, the fact that he kept all his men alive was jaw-droppingly amazing. But he was no saint, and in some ways even his experience did not lead him to make the decisions he should have. Bixby’s book was a kind of hagiography. Shackleton and his men are square-jawed and wild-eyed, brave through incredible physical hardship, stoic in the face of disappointment, optimistic through the portents of certain doom. I would have preferred a little more detail and a little less of the testosterone-fueled joking. Give me maps, tell me what they ate, describe their salt sores in loving detail, tell me what they bickered over and what they forgot at home!
Still, the book was worth reading, if only as an introduction to what will clearly be a much meatier read: Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton. Brrr. Good thing spring is coming soon.