North Pole by Michael Bravo
*I did receive a digital version of this title from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review*
The North Pole, for a variety of reasons, has almost always held a certain air of mystery for the general public (and for academics as well!) throughout the course of history from the ancient Greeks down to contemporary society. Michael Bravo’s book, North Pole: Nature and Culture, does a fantastic job of exploring many facets of the North Pole and how it has captivated the human mind and spirit over the centuries. From cartography to philosophy and literature to actual exploration, the author delves into humanity’s evolving relationship with the North Pole.
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There were only a few drawbacks to this otherwise interesting read. Most notably, certain sections covering the early modern period’s understanding of the the North Pole and the concept of polarity in general became quite tedious and included many, many names that only one who lives in an ivory tower would recognize. The earliest philosophical thoughts on polarity itself to the arcane printers of specialized paper globes and maps for the aristocracy which also included musings on what the North Pole could potentially be are touched upon. Overall, this section of the book was quite esoteric for the non-specialist. On other aspect that felt missing or that could have at least been touched upon was an examination of the flora and fauna of the Arctic. While quite biologically sparse from other areas of the globe, what life has managed to evolve and survive in the Arctic and its accompanying ocean is certainly worth a quick look at even if biology is not the main push of the book.
Still, those flaws pale in comparison to the richness of the rest of the book. Some highlights included some thoughts on Inuit understanding of the North Pole and Arctic life in general. This also includes how different Arctic explorers and prevailing attitudes of different times either incorporated Inuit understanding or went against it in their adventures and expeditions. The book also dd well to not be a direct history of polar expeditions but instead chose highlights from several expeditions and focused on a few differing schools of thought from the various explorers. In particular the examination of Vilhjalmur Stefansson and his naturalist philosophies and writings were excellent. The author has some tremendous insights on the varying contemporary opinions of the North Pole and its importance as well as the expeditions taking place in the Arctic. Political cartoons, cultural events, and contemporary literature are all examined to bring the era of Arctic exploration to life. Another highly interesting topic that was covered was the extensive use of Greek mythology that was used during the times in association with the North Pole and the Arctic. For some examples, the explorer (and disputed first expedition leader to reach the pole) Robert Peary likened himself to the tradition of Heracles and the North Pole was widely associated with the titan Antaeus.
Overall, the book does include some minutiae and obscure points of the history of the North Pole, but this is vastly overshadowed by deep connections that the book makes between humanity’s changing relationship with the North Pole. For those interested in the human aspect of the North Pole and the Arctic this book is a definite must read.
4 out of 5 stars.