Who could be unmoved by Douglas Mawson’s words, “It was unutterably sad that he should have perished thus”…. (Home of the Blizzard, 1915)
One is never enough
Inhaling deeply, the familiar aroma has stimulated a phalanx of receptors in my brain. My pulse quickens, pupils dilate and anticipation rises. I can almost touch the ice. All the while the dealer smiles knowingly, confident that refusal now, is well-nigh impossible. He casually mentions the price and momentarily, I consider it. Alas, at $3,500 the final seduction of this near perfect, first edition slips beyond my grasp.
First published over 90 years ago, Sir Douglas Mawson’s The Home of the Blizzard is still available as a facsimile edition. However, fans of Antarctic exploration rarely set eyes upon, let alone have the opportunity to possess, an original two-volume set published in 1915, and in such exquisite condition. Disappointment is tempered by the booksellers offer of a more modestly priced, first “abridged popular edition” from 1930. A keen observer, my wife assures me that ultimately, the reading pleasure is the same, but with far less damage to the credit card. She knows I’m simply mad about old books.
The purist seeks out untarnished manuscripts whose mint condition suggests decades of non-use. Perhaps the work has languished in an archive or been locked in a glass-fronted oak bookcase, safe from prying hands, dust, moisture and insects. For me, well-thumbed pages, annotated margins and occasional underlining of a sentence are the marks of a working book. Such volumes have clearly fulfilled both the author’s aim and the reader’s expectation of being thoroughly read. Add the names of owners past, with perhaps a salutation from a friend on a special day, penned when the work was newly printed, and you have a tangible link back in time. Like an ageing friend, the lines and imperfections impart a dignity and standing gained only with the passage of years.
Ephemeral creatures that we are, old books are markers of the past – the times of our grandparents or more distant ancestors. But for early editions at least, first-person narratives such as Mawson’s epic, or Scott’s Last Expedition (1913) or South – The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton (1919) were especially contemporary with the events of which they speak. As stories of leadership, determination, vision or folly, their place and time defined them. For some, the linear style and no nonsense treatment lack feeling. Of necessity, the scientific and logistical nature of the content limit the expression of emotion in these journals.
These were after all, diaries written by men of action, leading teams in extraordinary adversity. They could ill afford to spend time on doubt or introspection, much less feelings of loss and despair. Nevertheless, who could be unmoved by Mawson’s words, “It was unutterably sad that he should have perished thus” as he described the deterioration and death of Xavier Mertz? And few authors could rival the genuine foreboding in Scott’s last journal entry, dated March 29th 1912, when with near-frozen hand, he scrawled a barely legible “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” He perished a mere eleven miles from safety.
Scott’s body and those of his companions, Wilson and Bowers, were recovered eight months later in November 1912. So the release of the journals in print by 1913 was remarkably prompt. Publication was crucial in recuperating investment in such costly expeditions. It was also important to feed the public’s appetite for information. In a period of growing political disquiet in Europe, the story of heroism and ultimate tragedy, that was Scott’s polar journey, generated unprecedented interest. For all its failures, the expedition appeared to give real meaning to the words “triumph of human endeavour”, achieving legendary status in the process.
My cloth-bound 1913 edition of Scott’s fatal trek across the ice was published for circulation in the “British dominions”. The two-volume set presides over the bookshelf like an elder statesman and carries it’s age just as well. Beside it, The Home of the Blizzard (abridged edition!) is a comparative youngster at 83 years. But working books, with a history of use, come at a cost. A 1905, paperback edition of Scott’s The Voyage of the Discovery is sadly, in very delicate condition. Unfortunately, with 100-year-old texts, utilization is the antithesis of preservation. I love reading these great stories in their original livery but doing so risks their destruction.
There is, of course, only one practical solution. Buy a second copy. Now I spend three times as long hunting for the latest reprints of favourite old books. Modern publishers camouflage the volumes with evocative images and glowing testimonials to position these venerable stories in today’s marketplace. This is a far cry from the sparingly embossed, cloth covers of yesteryear. But in the end the success of any book, old or new, depends on how well the writer reaches out across time, and touches us with their story.
Footnote: I had the extraordinary privilege of working with the late Professor Allan White at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Allan was the last Honours student in Geology to be supervised by Professor Sir Douglas Mawson at the University of Adelaide.