Of Many Things

One of the interests that I share with my father is a taste for what the British used to call ripping good yarns, that is, stories of high adventure. My father and I are far from alone in our interest. A glance at recent best-seller lists will reveal a surprising number of adventure tales nestled among the John Grisham novels and Harry Potter books. Last year you could venture into bookstores and find a half dozen books about Sir Edward Shackleton, famed explorer of the Antarctic. As I write this column, Nathaniel Philbrick’s superb In the Heart of the Sea, the story of a Nantucket whaling boat sunk by a malevolent whale, is firmly embedded in national bestseller lists. And in late May the undisputed king of modern adventure tales, The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Junger, was released by producers hoping for the perfect summer movie.

A number of theories have been offered to explain this publishing phenomenon. First, the human animal, naturally designed for hunting woolly mammoths and the like, craves the rush of adrenaline that accompanies physical risk. Second, Americans have moved in just a few generations from a nation of hardworking farmers, seafaring fishermen and risk-taking pioneers to a group of predominantly sedentary people with little adventure in their lives. (About the only thing most of us hunt for these days is a parking space.)

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Third, the alpha males among us have little chance to prove their mettle in physical arenas and fewer opportunities to use up nature’s supply of testosterone. You can’t, for example, go around punching your boss (unless you wish to experience the adventure of unemployment).

But there is another explanation, less psychological though perhaps just as accurate: the narratives themselves. Simply put, these are terrific stories. And unlike a great deal of contemporary fiction, in these books things actually happen.

Take, for example, the story of Sir Edward Shackleton. In 1916 Shackleton and 27 men set out from England with the goal of walking across the Antarctic continent. But shortly into their trip, their wooden ship, the aptly named Endurance, was caught in pack ice and crushed, leaving the crew stranded in the direst of circumstances. There followed 17 months in which Shackleton led several of his men on a journey of hundreds of miles over treacherous pack ice, across stormy Polar seas in a small boat and over the mountainous peaks of South Georgia in sub-zero conditions to a tiny whaling station in South America.

Sir Edward then promptly returned to rescue the men he had left behind. Amazingly, to employ a phrase beloved by Shackleton aficionados, not a man was lost.

One modern-day anecdote, I think, neatly illustrates the difference between our time and Shackleton’s. Last summer the American Museum of Natural History in New York mounted a fascinating exhibition focusing on Shackleton’s trek. Included in the exhibition was the lifeboat used by Shackleton’s men to cross the Southern Ocean.

The boat was mounted in a circular space surrounded by a wraparound screen, onto which was projected filmed footage of the raging seas. The film’s waves were about the same height as those experienced by Shackleton’s men as they made their way across the storm-tossed ocean. There was just one problem: The monstrous swells made museum-goers nauseous. As a result, the museum decided to substitute smaller waves on the screens. In other words, simply being faced with a representation of what Shackleton faced proved too much for the modern museum-goer.

So for those who are searching for some armchair adventures, may I recommend the following books, in addition to those already mentioned: Into Thin Air, which details an ill-fated Mount Everest expedition, by Jon Krakauer; The Endurance, by Caroline Alexander, a fine account of Shackleton’s journey; and Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson, about the 1900 Galveston hurricane. These ripping good yarns will excite and entrance you, and, as an added benefit, make your own life’s adventures seem blissfully easy.

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