The Season for Vicarious Voyages
Still, the enforced hiatus isn't necessarily bad. When the days are long and the sun is high, I can't sit still for more than a few minutes at a time without itching to be off. Long sessions at the computer are agony. But come November all that changes, and I find the prospect of spending an hour or two with my nose buried in a good book curiously inviting. Maybe it has something to do with physiology — my body's imperfect attempt at hibernation. Or maybe it's just fatigue, the summer's exertions having taken their toll. Either way, I head for the shelves in my library. And more often than not the book I take down is one that first appeared in a publisher's catalog many years ago, long before the age of mass tourism (and cozy TSA pat‑downs), when maps still had empty spaces, sextants were used to fix positions on both land and sea, and paddles, sails, and oars were regularly employed by men and women in getting a living. It's an acquired taste, to be sure. Often lengthy and discursive, these dusty volumes demand that I give them my full and undivided attention. They're worlds and years removed from the era of emoticons and 140‑character limits. And then there are the illustrations! Photographs are few, and usually rather muddy, their place filled by painstaking lithographs derived from exquisitely drafted maps, pen‑and‑ink drawings, and watercolor sketches. Often, in fact, the illustrations are every bit as interesting as the text itself.
Perhaps you, too, sometimes feel the urge to prospect among the shelves. I've written about the charms of old journals before, but I only scratched the surface then. There's plenty of scope for further exploration. Let me suggest a…
A Few Good Titles
I'll start with one of my favorite authors, whose tales of waterborne exploration in the farther reaches of northwest Canada still delight me, even though I've reread his books yearly for nearly two decades now. I'm speaking, of course, of Raymond M. ("R.M.") Patterson. His classic yarn Dangerous River still lures paddlers north to the Nahanni, eighty years after the fact. A probationer with the Bank of England, Patterson first crossed the Pond in the 1920s. He didn't publish Dangerous River until much later (1954), but his writing savors more of the 19th century than the 20th. That's not really surprising, since he'd steeped himself in the journals of earlier explorers, a course of reading that bore fruit in two later books: Trail to the Interior, in which Patterson retraced the historic Stikine–Dease River route, and Finlay's River, a moving elegy to a doomed (and subsequently dammed) waterway. The latter work owed a considerable debt to Samuel Black's A Journal of a Voyage From Rocky Mountain Portage in Peace River to the Sources of Finlays Branch and North West Ward in Summer 1824, a fascinating account of an unconventional voyage, written by a most unconventional voyager.
General Sir William Francis Butler was from an earlier generation than Patterson. He died in 1910, only twelve years after R.M. was born, and like the author of Dangerous River he was a gifted storyteller. Two of his books, The Great Lone Land and The Wild North Land are also among my favorites, not least for the prominent part played in each by Cerf‑vola, the "Esquimaux dog," an indefatigable companion, and an animal blessed with both great tact and indomitable powers of digestion. Sir William was later to play a distinguished role in a theater of conflict far removed from the Red River of the North, during the expedition for the relief of Khartoum, in what became known as the "Campaign of the Cataracts."
Moving still further afield, I heartily recommend Magnificent Voyagers, edited by Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis. This thoroughly modern book tells the story of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838–1842), providing a useful introduction to a whole catalog of discovery, in fields as diverse as anthropology and oceanography. Among the many scientists who figure prominently in the narrative are geologist James Dana, whose pioneering Manual of Mineralogy has remained in print through 22 editions, and whose meticulously documented observations, made while attached to the Exploring Expedition, did much to pave the way for the modern theory of plate tectonics.
Dana's name is now familiar to any student of geology. The same cannot be said of Hugh Miller, however. And that's too bad. Apprenticed to a stonemason in the first half of the 19th century, Miller was intrigued by the emerging science of geology, an interest which his deeply felt Christian faith only served to intensify. Never one to shirk controversy, and well before the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Miller argued the case for reconsidering the prevailing literal interpretation of Genesis, while also taking an active part in the sectarian strife that then roiled the Church of Scotland. He was a keen observer and an engaging writer, and his account of a geological "ramble" among the Hebrides, The Cruise of the Betsey, still makes fascinating reading. Sadly, though, Miller did not live to see it published. Depressed and exhausted by the many controversies in which he found himself engaged, he took his own life in 1856.
As Hugh Miller's tragic example shows all too clearly, not every story ends well, however gripping the narrative itself might be. In 1926, when still a teenager, Edgar Christian accompanied his uncle, veteran Arctic explorer John Hornby, into the Thelon River country. He did not live to see the next year out, and the diary of his last days, published under the title Unflinching, makes compelling, if cautionary, reading. There's no better illustration of the perils inherent in living off the land.
The fate of Sir John Franklin's last expedition is much better known, though certainly no happier. Sir John left no account of his last days, but the many expeditions sent in search of him and his men generated whole libraries of volumes. One of these expeditions, a private venture under the command of Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, funded by public subscription after the Admiralty refused to underwrite any further rescue attempts, very nearly suffered the same fate as Franklin's. Its story is told in The Voyage of the "Fox" in the Arctic Seas and in a series of articles from the archives of The (London) Times. The better part of The Times' archive now lies behind a paywall, but The Voyage of the "Fox" can be had for the price of a click.
Which brings up an obvious question: If there's so much good reading to be found in early journals, just…
Where Do You Find These Treasure?
Probably not at your local library. The cost of purchasing multiple copies of Dan Brown's latest thriller and replacing lost (or stolen) DVDs stretches community library budgets to the breaking point. There's no money left over to cater to what small‑town shopkeepers used to call "singular tastes." You can try your luck with interlibrary loan, of course, but few large depository libraries will lend old or rare volumes, and even fewer librarians have either the time or the inclination to chase down copies of obscure 19th‑century titles. After all, there are still those DVDs to catalog and shelve, and another Dan Brown is always in the pipeline.
So you're on your own. You can begin by searching the collections of antiquarian booksellers. Be warned, though: Rare old books don't come cheap, and the fragile paper and bindings don't encourage casual reading. Still, patience will often be rewarded. Farwell and I added many titles to our shelves simply by visiting library book sales and searching university trash cans. Am I joking? No way! The notion that libraries — even university libraries — are committed to the preservation of our cultural heritage is definitely old‑school. And when universities "weed" their library collections to make room for, say, a new computer center or an all‑night study lounge‑cum‑coffee bar, they often toss hundreds of dusty old tomes into the nearest dumpster. Public libraries are little better. We've found rare volumes worth hundreds of dollars in 25¢ bags of books. Other options? The Web catalogs of online booksellers are always worth a look. If you're really lucky, the title you want will have been reprinted recently in an inexpensive paperback edition.
But there's an even better alternative: e‑books. More and more out‑of‑copyright titles are being scanned and offered as free downloads, in a growing list of formats. Project Gutenberg was the pioneer in this public‑spirited enterprise, but the Internet Archive has now outdistanced all the competition. Search their databases just as you would a public library's online card catalog. Then, when you find what you're looking for, simply download the title in whatever format you favor. I like PDFs for reading on‑screen — they preserve the look and formatting of the original — but I use .mobi files with my Kindle reader. (The Kindle does a fair job with some PDFs, but the six‑inch screen is too small for many others.) Two cautions: First, and most important, avoid Google Books' PDFs if at all possible. The folks who do the work for Google clearly don't see it as a labor of love. They almost never bother to scan fold‑out maps or illustrations, and other pages are often missing or blurred. Moreover, Google apparently doesn't index its scans, thereby making it impossible to search the text. Second, don't bother with the Internet Archive's machine‑generated .mobi files. They're rife with typos and other errors — so much so as to be almost unreadable.
The upshot? Go to Gutenberg for .mobi files and to the Internet Archive for PDFs. And use Google Books only as a last resort.
Now you're ready to…
Chart Your Own Course
The best trips are those you plan yourself. So spend a few hours online. Follow your nose. Search for books you've heard mentioned but have never read. For authors you've always meant to read (but never had the time). For famous and not‑so‑famous names. For the topics nearest to your heart. Now download a few of the most promising titles and settle into your favorite chair for a good read. But be warned — if you're not careful, you may not want to go outside again till the spring sun frees the waters from their icy prison!