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Not a history - a cultural exploration
on 30 November 2003
This book is not a history of polar exploration. Whilst it does work its linear way through the names, tragedies, heroism, prejudices and unabashed ineptitude of British assaults on the poles, from the 17th century to Scott & Shackleton, it owes more to psychology, anthropology, and literature, than simple, chronologically-listed tales.
It is a valuable addition for anybody with a stock of Roland Huntford biographies, or any of the many boy's own-style books about the Endurance expedition. It places these tales in a psychological landscape. For anyone who wonders 'why?' these guys did what they did, this book attempts to get behind their eyes and show you.
It is beautifully written. The density of Spufford's style demands that you pour over every line, every word. It is not a book to be rushed. It is one of the best-written non-fiction book's I have ever read - for its use of language. There are some stunningly beautiful passages, as well as interesting accounts of Dickens' and George Bernard Shaw's roles in the history of the poles. The use of ice and snow in Moby Dick and Frankenstein has you looking as these works in a totally new way - not as singular works of genius and originality, but as stories using the common theme of the day at a time when everybody wanted a piece of the poles (much as novelists now write about Big Brother and text messages).
Despite this, it probably is a book only for lovers of extreme exploration, as it is quite a marginal subject, even in the face of the recent Shackleton-mania. But for the armchair Scotts/Shackletons/Amundsens out there, reading it will make your year. I cannot recommend it highly enough.