West with the Night by Beryl Markham
It is hard to talk about how much I love this book. It is so full of beauty. Of adventure. Of growing up in Africa. Of being the first to fly. Of knowledge, and wonder, and fear. On top of that, the writing is pure grace.
Beryl Markham takes second place only to Ayn Rand in my canon of must-read writers.
“We began at the first hour of the morning. We began when the sky was clean and ready for the sun and you could see your breath and smell traces of the night. We began every morning at that same hour …
We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know — that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”
The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford
This book details the race to be first at the South Pole. Contenders: Englishman Robert Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen.
Englishman Robert Scott: National hero of England; thinks he can get by on grit; uses four different means of transport, none of which he knows anything about; decides that dogs are a bad idea when they don’t perform when he uses them improperly; refuses to turn back when it becomes clear that they are all in danger of dying
Norwegian Roald Amundsen: meticulous, careful planner and preparer (spent 5 years getting ready) with a hand-picked crew of seasoned arctic explorers using only the most appropriate equipment for the conditions they face (he studied the Inuit to learn to make their clothing and their igloos and how they use their dogs)
An incredibly interesting case study in how bungling and death can be romanticized while success that looks easy and breezy due to years of planning, learning, training, and considering can be dismissed.
Huntford was told that he “must not tell the truth if it hurts a national hero.” He told the truth, not shying away for a second. He writes elegantly and smartly and never lionizes idiotic self-sacrifice. A great and inspiring book.
“A gulf separates the man who goes first from everyone who comes after. The pathfinder is denied the comfort of knowing that what he is attempting has already been proved possible.”
John Adams by David McCullough
More intense, logical, and irascible than some of his contemporaries, who often relied on their charm and a tendency to emotional demagoguery (I’m looking at you, Mr. Jefferson) to get what they wanted, John Adams was a fierce arguer, supremely committed to following the facts at all times.
Stubborn and unyieldingly independent, Adams defended the British soldiers who were involved in the Boston Massacre on the grounds that they were endangered by the mob.
Oft ignored or downplayed by historians, the great man finally gets his due from David McCullough.
“Griefs upon griefs, disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.” ~John Adams
John Hunter was one of the most skilled and knowledgeable surgeons in 18th century London. He conducted experiments on animals that would lead to improvements in treatments for humans at his country home and performed thousands of dissections on human cadavers (a practice frowned upon by his contemporaries, who mostly preferred to follow the theories of the ancient Greeks and learn by trial and error). Hunter quickly became an early proponent of anatomical knowledge as the foundation of surgery.
He is known for being the mentor of Edward Jenner (inventor of the smallpox vaccine), for his pioneering operation to cure popliteal aneurysms (which showed that the circulatory system heals itself and finds new pathways for blood flow when one is blocked), as well as his somewhat rude and abrupt manner and fondness for collecting a menagerie of animals and human medical oddities.
“Unlike the vast majority of surgeons operating in London homes and hospitals, who wielded their lancets and saws in imitation of long-dead past masters while rarely considering any need for improvement, Hunter believed all surgery should be governed by scientific principles, which were based on reasoning, observation, and experimentation.”
Wendy Moore writes with skill and flair — a well executed portrait of a unique and fascinating innovator who walked his own path.
The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester describes the map in question thus:
“The document is exquisitely beautiful — a beauty set off by its great size, more than eight feet by six — and by the fact that it towers — looms, indeed — above those who stand on the staircase to see it. The care and attention to its detail is clear: This is the work of a craftsman, lovingly done, the culmination of years of study, months of careful labor.”
“As vital as it turned out to be for the future of humankind, it stands apart — because it was conceived, imagined, begun, undertaken, and continued and completed against all odds by just one man.”
William Smith worked for almost 20 years on this map, one that Winchester takes as an emblem of the era’s spirit of discovery and innovation — and as the precursor to a whole new science: geology.
Smith had a difficult life, to say the least, that included spending time in debtor’s prison and being homeless and penniless. Still he carried on.
Winchester handles Smith’s story deftly by focusing on his independence and dogged persistence, and gives the reader an inspirational and motivational tale.