Relying largely on first-person accounts, Chaplin (History/Harvard Univ.; The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius, 2006, etc.) pieces together a centuries-old story: our obsession with circling the globe.
The notion goes back to the ancient Greeks and the myth of Phaeton, whose planetary circling has been duplicated by such fictional characters as Shakespeare’s Puck, Milton’s Satan and Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. Throughout her witty, highly readable chronicle of real-life adventurers, Chaplin pays tribute to these globe-trotters and to authors like Defoe, Coleridge, Poe, Twain, London and DeLillo, who have mined the idea of circumnavigation for its dramatic possibilities. She divides her planetary drama into three acts: first, from Magellan to Captain Cook, when the overriding theme of an around-the-world voyage was death—a shocking mortality rate accompanied almost every attempt; second, from the 1780s to the 1920s, an age marked by confidence, when technologies and political arrangements had sufficiently advanced so as to moderate the risk; third, our own era, in which the perils of air and space have reintroduced the dangers, where doubt has crept back into any calculation of safe return. Chock-full of famous names and crowded with lots of “firsts” (first woman, first American, first cyclist, first motor car, first nuclear sub) Chaplin’s story features grand enterprises (Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet), solo stunts (Francis Chichester’s tiny sailboat, Gipsy Moth) and even animals (Cook’s famous goat and the Soviet dog Laika). The sheer scale of the endeavor, the singular space, time and mind-warping nature of circumnavigation, almost guarantees interesting reading, but Chaplin, an informed and perceptive guide, adds greatly to the fun.
A welcome, unique addition to our travel literature.