Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #337: Shackleton by Nick Bertozzi

Perhaps I'm a cynic, but I've never been all that impressed with the supposedly awesome tales of great explorers. Most of the time, they seem like bull-headed men who tried to do something just this side of suicidally stupid, and are lauded for either managing to barely succeed at that stupid thing, or for dying in the process. None of that looks to me like behavior I want to encourage.

Take Ernest Shackleton, for example. He's famous for his third expedition to the South Pole, primarily for not having any of the men directly under his command die, despite various travails. (A couple of guys on the relief ship did die, though, so even that strikes me as a really thin claim to fame: hey, nobody right next to me got killed because of what I dragged them into!) And even that expedition was just another stop on Shackelton's loser express: he got sick and was kicked out of Robert Fallon Scott's 1901-04 expedition, led his own failed expedition in 1907-09, and the one that made him famous...well, I should probably save the spoilers for later in the review.

Nick Bertozzi has dramatized that 1914-1916 Shackleton expedition in Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey, a deeply researched and precisely told story of senseless waste and horrible deprivation in the pursuit of what was essentially an international dick-measuring contest. (The Norwegians, under Amundsen, reached the pole several years before in a race with another British expedition under Scott -- and Scott's team all died on the ice on the way back.) Shackleton was trying to walk across Antarctica, and it's pretty clear that was because he wanted to be first at something down there, and this was the thing he could think of doing.

Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, didn't live up to its name: it got stuck in the closing ice, a few miles from shore, and was crushed over the first polar winter. Shackleton's men survived and wandered and endured, and at some point -- Bertozzi doesn't dramatize it, if there ever was an actual decision  -- they changed plans, from walking across the continent to just surviving and getting off it. They did, in the end, with only relatively minor injuries -- one small heart attack, one guy losing all of his toes, that sort of thing. And then, for an encore, they pretty much all went off to fight in the Great War, an even bigger and more murderous dick-measuring contest than Antarctic exploration.

Bertozzi tells this story brilliantly, with maps and schematics and changing page layouts, to make the story of a bunch of guys in dark hair in drab clothes in a white landscape visually interesting. His book is compelling and full of interest -- a deeply researched look into a monumentally pointless exercise.

I suspect most people take the wrong lesson from Shackleton's story, and this book won't help that. He wanted to do one thing in his life, and he failed repeatedly at that, showing only a talent for surviving after each failure. And what he wanted to do isn't even particularly useful, especially since he kept trying even after someone else got the claim of being the first. Shackleton's story is a gigantic lesson in the wrong way to set priorities in one's life -- but try telling that to the world.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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