Q: WHAT DO CHARLES DARWIN, Mark Twain, Nellie Bly, S. J. Perelman, Chinese customs service employee Li Gui, Monty Python’s Michael Palin, the Hindu reformer Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, a Soviet spacedog named Laika, a goat belonging to Captain James Cook, and the participants in the first season of The Amazing Race have in common? A: All made voyages around the world and, other than the animals (who couldn’t) and reality show contestants (who didn’t), later wrote a book about the experience. Now, thanks to Harvard historian Joyce E. Chaplin, this double-barreled list’s members have something else in common: Each appears in Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, an entertaining and illuminating survey of five centuries of “globe-girdling” journeys.
If some books are like “skiffs” and others more like “dreadnaughts,” as New York Times critic Jennifer Schuessler suggested in a recent article, then Chaplin’s latest, at well over 500 pages, definitely qualifies for the latter category. It’s only fitting, then, that she populates it with a wonderfully motley crew, which, in addition to the worthies mentioned above, includes Sir Francis Drake and Howard Hughes. Chaplin’s cast even encompasses several fictional globe-girdlers: Phaeton, a tragic figure Ovid wrote about long before anyone had circled the earth, gets a berth, as does Phileas Fogg, whose imaginary 80-day trip took place just as Thomas Cook began running round-the-world tours in 1872. She saves room, too, for Shakespeare’s Puck, the sprite who claimed to be able to “put a girdle round the earth” in 40 minutes, and who is shown scampering across the planet on the book’s cover. And why not? As Chaplin notes, Puck made his debut in a theater called “The Globe” at a time of great popular interest in early voyages of circumnavigation. And Chaplin enlivens her book with many asides that might best be described as, well, puckish. These touch on everything from the identity of the first female circumnavigator (that would be Captain Cook’s goat) to the wines served on the Concorde during a round-the-world trip (those of whichever regions were being flown over at the time).
Chaplin is good at telling the tales of heroic, eccentric and record-breaking trips, including the first global circuits made via bicycle, balloon, chauffer-driven car, and submarine. Her book is much more, however, than just a compendium of such charming narratives; it also tackles broad themes and big patterns. Chaplin points out that globe-girdling journeys have progressed, over the centuries, from being enormously dangerous (a staggeringly high percentage of members of early expeditions died en route, as did Magellan) to relatively predictable, safe, and comfortable. And she limns connections between these changes and broader shifts in human attitudes toward the earth, as we left behind a Victorian-era confidence that we can use “technologies and political alliances to dominate the planet” for one in which there is a “re-emerging fear that the planet could simply shrug us off”
It’s not surprising that global circumnavigation has changed the way we think about space, but Chaplin points out that it has also altered how we think about time. She offers these insights, for example, on the challenges of fixing the International Date...read more