Exploring the Explorers

Is there such a thing as book synchronicity? Because I have been experiencing something like that lately. It started with Robinson Crusoe. I read Moll Flanders last year and thought it was high time to read Defoe’s most famous work, Robinson Crusoe. That was really my first direct exposure to the Age of Exploration and the thrills of shipwrecks, pirates, booty, and desert isles, and the not-so-thrilling realities of slavery, plunder, dispossession, and imperialism. Of course I had heard about all these things before but never really knew much about them. It’s hard to imagine that there really were people like Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, who were having such a rotten time aboard ship that they just said, “Why don’t you just leave me on that deserted island over there and I’ll wait for the next ship.” I suppose if you’re intrepid enough to take to the seas in a leaky ship you are intrepid enough to camp out on a tropical island for a few years.

I won’t go into Robinson Crusoe. It is enjoyable as a survival story but at bottom it’s about a man who makes a fortune off of other people’s misfortune and calls it divine providence. He is really not that different from Moll Flanders, the thief and con artist who buys her way out of the noose and also ends up as a wealthy plantation (i.e. slave) owner. Perhaps they are representative of the kind of people who had what it took to liquidate the New World.

After that I read about Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine trader and explorer for whom the Americas were mistakenly named. That really got me interested in knowing more about this history, a history that is literally in my mestizo (Spanish-Indian) blood. Since I also like to keep some fiction going, I started Romola by George Eliot. Wouldn’t you know it, it begins in 15th century Florence, exactly the environment that spawned Vespucci. In fact it begins precisely in 1492, just a few months before Christopher Columbus set sail for China (or so he thought).

By this time I realized resistance was futile so the next nonfiction book I chose was 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. That was going nicely until I discovered that is the book is actually a sequel to 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. So, do I abandon 1493 and read 1491 first? Or just read 1491 later? I have 1493 in audio format but 1491 is not available to me as an audiobook. So I had the crazy idea of reading both at the same time, one in text and the other on audio, alternating chapters. Would it be completely confusing? Or would it meld the whole story of contact into a seamless whole? I guess I will find out.

If I survive that I can follow it up with The Faber Book of Exploration, a large tome which I recently picked up at the thrift store in (*cough*) unexplored condition. It is an anthology of writings by and about over a hundred ancient and modern explorers. Interestingly the book is organized by biome (sea, forest, desert) rather than chronologically. The editor is mainly interested in what makes explorers tick and how they react to the unknown, rather than just who discovered what and when. That sounds like a good way to make history seem human and immediate. Let the voyage continue!

This entry was posted in History.

2 comments on “Exploring the Explorers

  1. Stefanie says:

    Oh yes, there is such a thing a book synchronicity and you are in it deep! What fun it is to have so many things collude and then to realize it and deliberately follow up on it. Good luck reading 1492 and 1491 simultaneously. I will be interested to hear how it goes. And the way the Faber book is organized by biome is a very intriguing way to go about it. Hope that’s good too!

    • Sylvia says:

      Thanks! So far 1491 and 1493 are mainly focussed on land use and ecology so they mesh well together. The books are like before and after snapshots, though the after is still unfolding.

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