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What to Read Next (No. 158): unknown heroes of the outdoors + Andrea Pitzer interview
I love finding books about people who have been lost to history—who were once well-known and part of every person’s education, but for whatever reason have faded from society’s collective memory.
This year, I’ve already encountered two remarkable books about figures whose names you likely don’t recognize, but who shaped exploration and science for decades—centuries!—to come. It’s even better than usual, because these are heroes of the outdoors, a subject which is already near and dear to my heart.
To say the least, I’m thrilled to share these books with you.
I also had the chance to interview Andrea Pitzer, whose book Icebound is featured below. This is a long one, so buckle up.
A Couple Notes on Paid Subscriptions
In the last year of newsletters, I’ve included interviews every other week, often just featuring a single book those weeks, as to not overwhelm you with content. I’m reaching a point, however, where I’ll be able to do interviews every week, and publish them separately as standalone emails/articles for paid subscribers. This’ll start in February.
So the freebie Friday emails will cover the books—nothing changing there—and subscribers will get access to the interviews (and some other content/goodies).
This week, subscribers got a special Inauguration Day email featuring biographies of Biden and Harris, as well as a fun interview with author and journalist Dan Morain.
Get access to those reviews, subscriber-only archives, and starting in February, weekly interviews for $5/month. (I already have some amazing authors lined up for next month, in case you’re wondering.) First two weeks are always free. And here’s a little more info about what’s included.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
Published: 2015 | Pages: 406
“Humboldt gave us our concept of nature itself. The irony is that Humboldt’s views have become so self-evident that we have largely forgotten the man behind them.”
We take it for granted that all of nature is connected—one big circle of life. But that wasn’t always the prevailing idea in the realm of the natural sciences. Then came along Alexander von Humboldt. Through his South American explorations and unending research, he ultimately concluded that the entire natural world was connected; each piece was dependent on every other piece.
Humboldt’s encyclopedic knowledge of flora and fauna and even geology would be referenced over and over by the great naturalists of the age. His work would influence Thomas Jefferson, von Goethe, Emerson and Thoreau, Jules Verne, Walt Whitman, and perhaps most famously, John Muir (who said “how intensely I desired to be a Humboldt”). That he’s been forgotten in our modern world seems almost unconscionable.
There’s so much more to say about the man himself, but let me go a different direction:
Beyond learning a lot of really interesting facts, I was quite deeply personally inspired by Humboldt’s story. The guy just loved the outdoors and wanted to share it with the world. Wulf writes that he “was interested in everything” and that his pursuit of knowledge was “infectious” to those around him, who inevitably became sucked up in his work. Further, “he came to believe that imagination was as necessary as rational thought” and that the “creative force of imagination” could be used to “connect ideas, to detect chains of things.”
Reader, that is how I approach books and it’s the summation of my hopes for this newsletter. I’m a guy who’s interested in everything and hopes to connect certain ideas here and there, and in some way make life a little more beautiful. Humboldt taught me —through Andrea Wulf’s unbeatable narration—to lean in to what I most love and not apologize for it. Don’t tamp down your obsessions; just find a way to bring people along for the ride.
I’ll leave you with one final quote that I loved:
“He required information about everything and from everywhere, because ‘observations from the most disparate regions of the planet must be compared to one another.’ . . . Nothing was too small or insignificant to investigate because everything had its place in the great tapestry of nature.”
I can’t recommend The Invention of Nature highly enough. I know I didn’t talk much about the book itself, but Wulf’s readable, inspiring, moving account of Humboldt’s life and influence is definitely going to stay with me for a long time. Though I finished it in the first week of the year, I’m confident it’ll among my favorite reading experiences of 2021. Thanks for the stellar Christmas present, Jane!
Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Andrea Pitzer
Published: 2021 | Pages: 276
“Though Barents never gained fame in battle and never found a trade route to China, he had planted a seed for a new kind of explorer, one whose fame lay in a combination of knowledge and endurance rather than martial glory.”
I’ve read a lot of polar adventure tales, almost always in the throes of winter. Remember last week I mentioned leaning in to the darkness of the season; this is along those same lines. It’s cold and snowy outside, so why not read some epic tales of guys who’ve been much colder than me and far more miserable? Plus, stories of daring and survival are always fun, and it doesn’t get more daring or tense than the coldest cold you can imagine (and then some).
Andrea Pitzer’s Icebound, which tells the story of William Barents’ ur-expedition to the northern reaches of the world, adds to the upper echelon of polar adventure books.
Back in the late 1500s, ocean journeys were all about commerce. Finding a quicker route from Europe to East Asia was the goal—a mythical passage over the top of the world. There was even an idea that perhaps the north pole was actually a warm weather ocean. They really just had no idea what was up there.
So Barents set out on three expeditions. The first two were successful enough (he got farther north than any human possibly ever had), but no passage was found. On the third trip, Barents and his crew made it even further, but were then hemmed in by ice and forced to “overwinter,” or make camp for the long, cold, sunless season until the ice abated and allowed them to return home.
What happened next involved a driftwood hut for 18 men, numerous polar bears, nasty cases of scurvy and hypervitaminosis A (which makes your skin peel off!), and a trek home in what were functionally a couple of large row boats.
Pitzer quickly captured not only the bleak brutality of the surroundings and the arctic ocean-going experience, but also, perhaps most interestingly to me, the changing philosophy of the spirit of adventure in that time. Barents was celebrated as a hero, despite his failure to find a passable trade route.
His intrepid acts of endurance, leadership, and survival in a harrowing environment were enough. From then on, the ships that set out for the poles were more about sheer exploration than business pursuits. Though Barents isn’t a well-known name like Robert Falcon Scott or Roald Amundsen or Ernest Shackleton, he set the stage for all that came after him:
“every famous Arctic explorer who endured horrifying ordeals, every adventurer to the North whose story became a bestselling book, every voyager vowing to fill in the map for national glory, every polar adventurer whose exploits were recorded with the newest technologies—from books to telegrams to photos to radio broadcasts to phones to satellite links—has walked in the path first blazed by William Barents.”
A Few Bookish Questions With Andrea Pitzer
Andrea gave me an incredible interview, which is too long to post in full here. Below is just a sampling and I published the rest on a separate page—click here to get it. (It’s free!)
1. You're a writer who "loves to unearth lost history." How did you stumble upon this story of William Barents? What was the original inspiration?
I often say that I like to unearth lost or forgotten history. I would put Icebound in the category of somewhat forgotten history. In the years right after William Barents sailed into the Arctic and got stuck for the winter, his story made its way into several languages and sometimes multiple printings. Shakespeare referred to them in passing in Twelfth Night. These sailors were stranded for the winter of 1596 on Arctic islands known as Nova Zembla—islands high above the Russian mainland. For centuries after their voyages, the words "Zembla" and "Nova Zembla" in English-language literature symbolized the very idea of the intimidating, unknown far North.
The Dutch certainly still remember Barents. But most people in America today don't know the story at all. Or if they know that the Barents Sea east of Scandinavia and North of Russia is named after William Barents, they're unlikely to know why. And no book in English ever laid out the whole story. There's a small-press version of one of the journals from the voyages you can find, which definitely is a key source for Icebound. But it's a 400-year-old translation, and is missing important events—including a mutiny.
I came across Barents' story while researching my first book, which was about Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov invented a curious mystery kingdom called Zembla for his novel Pale Fire, and he made more specific references to Nova Zembla in earlier works. So in 2008, I began researching the history of the islands. Barents' story stuck with me for more than a decade, and I knew for a long time that I wanted to write a book about it.
2. There are a lot of great polar adventure books, both from explorers themselves and later chronicles. What are a few that stand out and stand the test of time?
I'm putting together an essay about polar books elsewhere, so I don't want to go into too much of that here, but I'll tell you about how I came to read one maritime series that has been an influence on me. Probably twenty years ago, my husband started reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. And the covers on the paperbacks seemed like ones you would find on boys' adventure books. I am embarrassed to say I teased my husband for reading them. I called them the Mr. Captain Seaship books.
Then we were visiting my in-laws one summer, and I started reading them myself and got completely sucked in. The last ones are pretty sentimental and formulaic. But a lot of the previous ones are so sharp with plot and character development and dialogue. They are also funny. More than once, I found myself fascinated by the naval battles and deeply moved by various events. The series mostly takes place at middle latitudes, but O'Brian's treatment of ships and sailing definitely influenced me for sections of Icebound.
[Editor’s Note: Oddly enough, Andrea is the third or fourth person I've interacted with in the last few weeks to say some great things about the Aubrey-Maturin series. I have a strong hankering now, and these books just got pushed wayyy higher on my 2021 list.]
Oofta. I know that was a lot! Your support means a lot to me, and I can’t thank you enough for the time and inbox space. Let me know what you’re reading—I always enjoy hearing about it!