Antarctica: A Biography

David Day, Author
David Day. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (624p) ISBN 978-0-19-986145-3
Reviewed on: 03/18/2013
Release date: 06/01/2013
Hardcover - 978-0-19-967055-0
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This sweeping but uninvolving history of Antarctic exploration revolves around the question of who owns a continent that no one really wants. Historian Day (Claiming a Continent) traces two centuries of expeditions that struggled to unravel the mystery of Antarctica (is that unapproachable line on the horizon a coast, a group of ice-bergs, a fog-bank, an island, or a continent?). Entwined in the explorers’ epic befuddlement are perennial efforts by rival nations to claim sovereignty over the elusive terrain by means of competitive mapping and landmark naming and stately possession rituals—flag dropping, fusillade firing, cairn building, plaque inscribing, and proclamation reading—performed for audiences of bemused penguins. There are moments of high drama in the saga, from Scott’s and Shackleton’s doomed journeys to the pole to Robert Byrd’s heroic overflights, but mainly it is a picaresque—and a sometimes tedious one—of semihapless voyages and treks and semiserious diplomatic wranglings. Day provides frustratingly little scientific information about the unique polar environment, but in the background he shows us a swelling fleet of seal hunters, whaling vessels, and factory ships as they slaughter the region’s abundant marine wildlife to the verge of extinction. More than the farcical human empire building he foregrounds, that gripping natural history provides the book’s drama. 35 b&w photos. Agent: Andrew Lownie, the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency Ltd. (June)
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