26 April 2011

Reading in Antarctica 80 years ago

In 1928, Admiral Richard Byrd led a scientific expedition to Antarctica. His chief scientist and second in command was geologist Larry Gould. Gould did real science and confirmed that Antarctica was geologically similar to the other continents.

When the Byrd explorers returned to the US in 1932, they were famous heroes and many of them went on speaking tours around the country. Gould also wrote a book about the expedition titled Cold.

Gould went on to become a geology professor and president of my alma mater, Carleton College. The college has kept the book in print for decades. (Used copies are still available at Amazon.com and ebay.) Then last fall, Northfield's Cannon River flooded. The basement of the college's West Gym filled with water. The swimming pool's pumps and the building's HVAC system had to be replaced. And the remaining copies of Cold became sponges.

My talented wife now has the job of editing the text for the next edition of Cold. She reports that it's well-written and interesting. And, luckily, the 50+ photographs in the book are available for republishing in the national archives.

In the process of editing, she found these amazing discussions of reading in Antarctica over 80 years ago. (What was Jean Christophe, by the way?)
[Reading during the "winter night"]

I believe the most important single source of recreation that made the time pass easily was our library of some 3,000 volumes.

When we were looking forward toward the winter night all of us anticipated great times with the books, but few of us, I think, had such ambitious projects as did one man who came to me one day early in the winter and said: “Larry, do you know what I am going to do during this winter night?” Of course I hadn't the slightest idea.

“Well,” he said, “I am going to learn aerial surveying and navigation and read the Encyclopedia Britannica through.”

It seemed a fairly ambitious program to me, but I didn't want to discourage the man so I assured him that if he carried out the project he would certainly achieve the essentials of a liberal education. His literary aspirations were rather short lived. He did start with volume I, letter A of the encyclopedia and got as far as “ammonium tetrachloride.” I saw him throw the book down with a look of disgust and asked him what was the matter.

“The stuff in that d--- book is no good for an aviator,” he replied.

Commander Byrd had charged me with the responsibility of collecting the library as part of our preparations back in New York. I asked him what sort of books he especially liked to read. His reply indicated considerable catholicity of taste: “Dickens, detective stories, and philosophy.”

And of all the various classes of reading matter that were represented detective stories were the most widely read, with accounts of other polar expeditions making a close second. The most widely read single book of all was W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions. Donn Byrne and Joseph Lincoln were more exhaustively read than any other two authors -- Mark Twain came next. We had a complete set of Kipling's works which was scarcely touched. As for myself, had the winter night given me opportunity for no other reading than Romain Rolland's Jean Christophe and Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga in its entirety I should still have considered it well spent. To me these are two works of this day that will live if any do. Jean Christophe is the most satisfying work of art with which I have ever come face to face...

[Reading while returning from the Queen Maud Mountains, a three-month geology expedition by dog sled that encompassed a total of 1,525 miles .]

We were in such excellent physical condition from the hard work of the summer that we travelled along with great ease, especially as compared with the hard work that had accompanied our southward trek. But the dogs were showing the effects of the gruelling summer's work and we had to be careful for their sake, and, purely on their account, we decided to limit ourselves to 23 miles per day. Some days when the surface made sledging easy for them we made good this distance within six or seven hours, nevertheless we forced ourselves not to get impatient but stopped and made camp…

There is much more variety in a polar night than there is in a polar day, and besides, one can create light when he tires of the darkness. But there was no way for us to induce even semi-darkness...

I don't know just what I should have done with all my free time had it not been for the few books that we had brought along with us. Each man had been allowed one book and ordinarily I should have brought Browning with me, but I had been reading him off and on all winter and elected to bring a thin paper edition of Shakespeare, complete in one volume. I regaled myself with Hamlet and Macbeth and King Lear and Love's Labor Lost and The Passionate Pilgrim, trying to fall asleep. When the day's journey had been particularly easy we would have supper over and be finished with the work for the day, ofttimes as early as 6 o'clock. I would crawl into my bag and lie there and read until 12 o'clock or later before going to sleep.

But I ran out of Shakespeare. One doesn't realize how much reading he can cover when he has five to seven hours per day without any kind of interruption. 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.

Mike Thorne had brought along W. H. Hudson's Purple Land and though I had read it but a few weeks previously, I read it again with the delight I always find in Hudson's exquisite prose. Eddie Goodale had brought a volume of English poetry which I devoured and in which I was glad to find one of my great favorites by Browning, "The Bishop Orders His Tomb." O'Brien had a big thick volume containing H. G. Wells short stories. I read this too, and it would have afforded me no end of satisfaction to have dropped this volume down the deepest crevasse I could find, but O'Brien objected strongly. He had borrowed the book from Russell Owen who wanted it returned...

The Research Vessel Laurence M. Gould was commissioned in 1995 and is chartered by the National Science Foundation for use in the oceans between Chile and Antarctica.

The RV Gould at Ross Station, Antarctica.

1 comment:

Ken Wedding said...

Bird Loomis wrote, "What a cool Reading entry!! Loved it. Almost made me want to spend six months in frigid temperatures. Not really. Still, way cool."