Book Review: The Arctic – An Anthology. Edited by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Arctic – An Anthology. Edited by Elizabeth Kolbert. Published by Granta.


When I purchased The Arctic: An Anthology online, I didn’t look at the page count, I was too excited. In my head, I imagined that I’d purchased a gigantic, heavy tome, and was somewhat disappointed when it arrived through the letterbox, and I didn’t need to open the door and let the postman haul it into my arms. It turned out to be a slender, 275 page volume. But hell! 275 pages of undiluted fucking brilliance. The Arctic is a smorgasbord of wild explorations; contemporary and historical, life-threatening mishaps and genuine environmental concerns. The Arctic showcases nature at its most beautiful, dangerous and fragile.

Each new piece was fresh and distinctive. Sure, it touched on things I had studied before, but I had the opportunity to see from completely different angles, and it helped banish those niggling fears that I would soon be running out of good writing to read about the frozen North.

There’s so many excellent writers crammed in, I feel giddy just thinking about them. They include Fridtjof Nansen, Jack London, Halldor Laxness and Barry Lopez. Just read those names again. They’re just a sample of the greats that feature.

One of my favourite pieces includes Murder In The Arctic? by Chauncey Loomis, the biographer of Charles Francis Hall, an explorer who died mysteriously on his voyage to The North Pole in 1871. Chauncey travelled to Greenland and exhumed his corpse, in the hope of clarifying the circumstances of his death.

It was not the face of an individual, but neither was it yet a skull. There were still flesh, a beard, hair on the head, but the eye sockets were empty, the nose was almost gone, and the mouth was pulled into a smile that a few years hence will become the grin of a death’s head.

He was in a strangely beautiful phase in the process of dust returning to dust.

There’s also a particularly lovely bit where he is being stalked by a fox.

He moved away, not running or even trotting, but keeping his dignity in a stately pace, pretending not to be frightened by what must have been the only human being he had ever seen.

It’s this sort of descriptive writing that fuels my excitement for literature. The imagery conjured up by a few hundred words is truly overwhelming. If I had the money I would buy everyone I know a copy of this book, and then sit in front of them while they read it, so that I would be able to see their expressions as they progressed through the chapters. That’s how much joy I got out of this book.

The Arctic forever lingers in my mind. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about it in some form or another. Other things seem menial in comparison. I am utterly fascinated by Antarctica too, yet, it doesn’t have that same pull for me. I’m not yearning for it day in, day out. I’m not drifting into daydreams about it.

Reading this anthology jump started my heart more times that I can say. I lost count of the times I placed it down and scribbled in my notebook or simply whispered hell wow.

I am a fastidious collector of quotes, and here are a few choice ones.

Dreaming of eternal cold. – Tete-Michel Kpomassie

The Northland is the Northland, and men work out their souls by strange rules, which other men, who have not journeyed into far countries, cannot come to understand. – Jack London.

Another piece that I really appreciated was by Gretel Ehrlich, and it’s called Aliberti’s Ride. Ehrlich travels to Greenland with a desire to understand the native culture, and in the piece she travels by dogsled with a hunter called Aliberti.

Bright sun, clear skies, a slight breeze, the temperature about zero. The ice was smooth and fast. With our light load, the sled fishtailed and the dogs’ panting became the only sound we heard as we slid from the noise of town. The smoke from Aliberti’s cigarette snaked back across his cheek as we glided forward. He turned and smiled. There was no need to talk. To be alive and on a dogsled in Greenland was enough and I was happy.  

It doesn’t matter how little or how much you know about the Arctic, this book will grab you and keep you and satisfy you.