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Even as they desperately fled death, Arctic explorers carried books. This new volume examines what they were reading.

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: September 26
  • Published September 26

Adventures in Polar Reading: The Book Cultures of High Latittudes

David H. Stam, Grolier Club, 256 pages, 2019. $40.

’Adventures in Polar Reading: The Book Cultures of High Latitudes, ’ by David H. Stam

Among the items recovered from the sledges left behind by the men who attempted an overland escape from the doomed Franklin Expedition that sought the Northwest Passage were a fair number of books. It can seem an extravagance, especially considering the daunting journey they faced. But it isn’t as remarkable for polar explorers as one might think. Adolphus Greely’s crew also dragged books along on their harrowing retreat from Fort Conger. And in their stunningly triumphant escape from the sunken Endurance far to the south, Shackleton’s men carried with them numerous volumes. Nourishment for the mind, it seems, was as critical for survival as food for the body.

This is the conclusion David H. Stam reaches with “Adventures in Polar Reading,” a collection of academic papers about the books explorers took with them when diving deep into Arctic and Antarctic realms, far from Western civilization, during an era when such journeys lasted years rather than weeks, and there was no communication with the outside world.

“After food and shelter, reading and writing were fundamental preoccupations of polar explorers and adventurers,” he writes, adding, “modern students have largely overlooked the fact that many polar adventurers, and especially the officers and scientists, spent almost as much time at their books as they did running dogs, man-hauling sledges, leaping among ice floes, or weathering storms on icy decks.”

It makes sense. For polar explorers, the most common malady wasn’t scurvy or starvation. It was boredom. While there were incidents of immense drama in Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, and while narrow escapes and horrific deaths were plentiful, the reality is, most of time the men who embarked to the far ends of the earth did a whole lot of nothing. Especially during the long winter months when ships were icebound and there was little to do but wait for spring and hope for a thaw. Books, therefore, were one of the few distractions to be found.

Still, a book about the books that polar voyagers took along with them would seem a prime choice for academic drudgery. Fortunately, however, Stam is a very lively writer, and what could have been a forced march through a topic as potentially barren as the pack ice proves to be quite fertile, providing polar history geeks with an unexpectedly fascinating examination of an aspect of shipboard life that has received insufficient attention.

Stam is librarian emeritus at Syracuse University, and a senior scholar in that school’s history department. His book is the culmination of two decades of work undertaken by himself and his wife, Deirdre C. Stam, that has resulted in numerous papers on this topic. It’s one that requires exhaustive digging and tremendous patience, since the records of what books were taken along and what fate befell them after traversing the frozen seas and landscapes are scant. But the couple has found enough to provide considerable insight into what men read, how they responded to the words they absorbed, and how books carried them through their months and years of isolation.

Most students of Arctic exploration know that as far as literary pursuits are concerned, the bar was set early and high by William Parry. For his 1819 and 1821 excursions into the Arctic seas north of Canada, he brought along a healthy supply of books. This was an era when most sailors were illiterate, and when his 1821 expedition was iced in, he took to teaching them to read, hoping to raise their moral aptitudes with exposure to the Bible and religious writings.

Over the course of the quest for the Northwest Passage, British captains, including the famously pious Sir John Franklin, devoted considerable energy toward the spiritual state of their men. As Stam recounts here, this was a mission also undertaken by Americans, especially by the American Seaman’s Friend Society. Founded in 1827, the Society assisted shipmen with many needs, both on and offshore. Among the later services was the provision of library boxes that included two or three dozen volumes and which were loaned to outbound ships for the enjoyment and edification of the crew.

Stam notes that as the nineteenth century wore on, religious works were gradually supplanted by secular writings. Novels would prove popular, as would the Encyclopedia Britannica, which some sailors reported reading in depth, and which would be consulted to settle factual debates. Bibles became fewer but were never fully absent. Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was quickly added to onboard libraries, however, and scientific and navigational books were also top shelf inclusions. The latter would play a critical role in Shackleton’s victorious extrication of his entire crew in 1916.

In addition to the books he brought along, Parry launched another tradition that would come to dominate polar journeys. On his 1819 excursion, he had his men write and publish a newspaper called “The North Georgia Gazette,” which contained reporting as well as whimsical writings, and kept otherwise idle minds occupied.

Piecing together the limited library catalogues from ships, along with requests found in surviving written requests and other sources, Stam tracks how polar reading matched the changes in society at large as literacy expanded. His findings, he writes, “provide further evidence of the often-pivotal role of reading, in which the shift from the sacred to the secular, from divinity to Dickens, from prayer book to porn is all too evident.”

Most of the reading was of a higher quality than smut however. Quoting the journal of one of Shackleton’s men, stranded off Antarctica, Stam demonstrates in this informative examination of an overlooked aspect of polar exploration that many of these men put their time to good use.

“It had never before occurred to me that one of the real advantages and benefits of an Antarctic Expedition would be the opportunity to read Shakespeare in his entirety. I have never appreciated all the tragedy of Lear quite so much as I did in this reading of it — out in the midst of the Ross Shelf Ice.”

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