Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak by Maurice Herzog, translated from the French by Nea Morin and Janet Adam Smith, 4/5
I’m not particularly interested in the topic of mountaineering, but have read a wide enough variety of books to realize that a good author can make any subject fascinating. My gamble paid off in this case; Herzog is a competent writer and his passion shines clearly in this intense tale of the 1950 French Annapurna expedition’s journey to the heart of the Himalayas, preliminary exploration, eventual summit, and harrowing return to civilization. The more dry, technical sections are supplemented by helpful maps and photos, including a large map of climbing routes printed on the inside of the dust cover. This is clearly a high-quality book that was prepared with great attention to detail.
I would recommend this book, along with Kon-Tiki, The Voyage of the Beagle, and Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic as great for armchair adventuring and representative of a golden era when unthinkably brave men put their lives on the line in the name of exploration and were heroes to the general public. One can only assume that such people still exist, but they certainly aren’t making the front page of the news like they used to. While I appreciate living a life of safety and comfort, there is something about the concept of risking it all to find ultimate fulfillment, so well-expressed in Herzog’s foreword, that strikes a chord deep inside me.
In overstepping our limitations, in touching the extreme boundaries of man’s world, we have come to know something of its true splendor. In my worst moments of anguish, I seemed to discover the deep significance of existence of which till then I had been unaware. I saw that it was better to be true than to be strong. The marks of the ordeal are apparent on my body. I was saved and I had won my freedom. This freedom, which I shall never lose, has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself. It has given me the rare joy of loving that which I used to despise. A new and splendid life has opened out before me.”
-Maurice Herzog, foreword to Annapurna
And that language from a man who lost all of his toes and most of his fingers from frostbite!
Further research revealed quite a bit of controversy about the accuracy of Herzog’s account, but I’m willing to chalk any inconsistencies up to fallible memory, oxygen deprivation and extreme trauma.
Why I read it: A thrift store find, I think. The cover is very heroic, so I thought it might be worth a try.
Trader Horn: Being the Life and Works of Alfred Aloysius Horn, the works written by himself at the age of seventy-three and the life, with such of his philosophy as is the gift of age and experience taken down here and edited by Ethelreda Lewis, 3/5
It’s safe to assume that everyone has a story to tell by the age of seventy-three, but not everyone was a trader who explored central Africa in the late 1800s. As such, “Trader Horn” fully deserves to have his life adventures immortalized in print and lovers of tall tales will have no quibble with his fantastical stories and idiosyncratic writing style. However, readers, like me, who prefer a clear separation between fact and fiction, will struggle to distinguish between the two in this book. At first, I wrongly suspected the author was not even a real person, but further research did not necessarily inspire confidence in the historical accuracy of someone who, for example, embellished even their own age in the book’s subtitle (he was sixty-seven at the time of publication, according to Ian Cutler’s excellent and very detailed article). The fact that editor Ethelreda Lewis was a novelist, not a historian or biographer, and that Horn aspired to be a novelist as well, further muddies the waters. While this sort of factual ambiguity does not make for a very enjoyable reading experience in my opinion, I’m glad that Horn’s life story was preserved instead of being lost forever.
Why I read it: Making progress in my efforts to ensure my collection of old books is more than purely decorative.