Friday, November 13, 2015

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage (by Alfred Lansing)

You may remember my love for Into Thin Air, so this book was right up my alley. It's the story of Ernest Shackleton's planned trip across the Antarctic continent, which was aborted when his ship was surrounded by ice and had to be abandoned. His men spent almost two years traveling over land, sea, and ice, trying to survive. It's a story of survival in the face of insurmountable odds, and is absolutely riveting to read.

It ended up really being a thought-provoking read for me as well. It was written in the 1950s, so it is purely a triumph of the human spirit story without addressing any of the larger questions that came to my mind when I read it. It doesn't need to address any broader context to be a successful book, yet the context for me, reading it in 2015, was inescapable.

The first thing that struck me was the language of colonialism about "being the first to penetrate the virgin continent" and all that. Brought me right back to my favorite college history course, a survey of the British Empire. Empire-building was all about men "penetrating" places, with complete disregard for the native populations and a sense of entitlement that survives to this day in the form of white male privilege. A lot of evil came out of colonialism, and in particular British colonialism, so it's a bit disconcerting for a modern reader to see it 100% celebrated.

Secondly, there's the pointlessness of the entire venture. Honestly, they just kind of sail into a bunch of ice and are like "oh crap we're stuck." Yes, they do unfathomable things to survive and suffer tremendously and show great courage. Again, I felt for these men every step of the way. But what choice did they have? It was either that or die, and they very nearly did. And for what? To be the first to penetrate the continent? It seems way more pointless to me than climbing Everest, because it seems more foolhardy.  (Also, for much of the book I didn't get a strong sense of Shackleton's leadership -- in fact he makes some bad decisions early on and Lansing doesn't really emphasize what he does right and what actions really saved them.  But definitely by the time you get to the end, not to spoil anything, you get the full Shackleton experience.)

The other thing that it made me think about was climate change and environmentalism -- I know, I'm fun. But in order to survive they have to do a lot of slaughtering, of seals, penguins, and even their own sled dogs. It's a whole lot of "fuck you, nature!" Obviously in this one instance, these men did what they needed to do to survive, and nobody can begrudge them a few hundred penguins here or there (yes, they kill hundreds at a time). But it's impossible to read and not think about where this attitude -- the bounty of nature belongs to us -- has gotten us as a  society. And being set in Antarctica, and watching these men inflict damage on the natural world on a small scale, you think about how much damage humanity has inflicted on the planet as a whole.

Apart from all the deep thoughts, I also wanted more at the end -- I wanted to know more about what happens next, what impact the ongoing war would have, reintegration into society.  An absolutely gripping read that made me think and left me wanting more -- you can't ask for better than that.

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