Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Book of Ice

There's no question that Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, is a potent and persistent media innovator, ever building new and surprising bridges between sight and sound, dada and data, academic and popular worlds. A typical Spooky project has at least three media arms: a multimedia performance, a musical mixtape, and a graphical interface, whether virtual or concrete; it can be attended as a performance, popped into a pod, and slid onto a shelf.

His Book of Ice is one part of such a project, complementing his remarkable Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica suite. Unfortunately, it's the weaker part; without the visual and musical motion of his performance piece, the book seems strangely static and immobile. There are a couple of brief, somewhat inscrutable introductions by scientists, a typically wide-ranging tour-de-force essay by Spooky himself, and a couple of interviews. There's some interesting stuff in each of them -- I was especially fascinated by Spooky's referencing Georges Méliès's Conquest of the Pole, a clear print of which was only recently discovered (although the text incorrectly gives its date as 1902, not 1912) and Cook's Truth About the North Pole, an amateurish self-promotional film released the same year. But these are, of course, films about the "other" pole; there's not much about Frank Hurley's majestical Antarctic footage, and though the book contains a series of lovely historical photos at its end, there are no captions or comments to even identify their subjects, nothing to put them in context. The most visually striking part of the book, in fact, is a series of posters and logos announcing a "Manifesto for the People's Republic of Antarctica," though such a manifesto doesn't seem to appear in the book, and there's no reference to the (delightful) novel by John Calvin Batchelor which would seem to have anticipated this phrase.

For those who have been able to see and hear Miller's live show, The Book of Ice makes a visually engaging, thought-provoking souvenir. But, on its own, it doesn't really seem to reach a critical mass; what we have here is not so much a berg as a series of icy fragments, enticingly evoking a larger landscape that we never really get to see.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Arctic E-Books

The world of e-books, in many ways, is as much an unexplored region as was the Arctic a century and a half ago. Will people be willing to pay for a virtual product with cold hard cash? And will electronic "books," so-called, ever be able to do the things that old-fashioned paper books have always done -- be loaned to a friend, donated to a library, or bequeathed to one's offspring?

While the jury is still out on such issues, there is certainly one realm in which the e-book fills a much-needed role: in bringing books back into availability when their original publishers have decided to allow the title to fall out of print. And no such book is more welcome here than John Wilson's North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames, which was first reviewed in these virtual pages nearly eleven years ago here. For those who can't readily lay hand on a used copy of the lovely Fitzhenry and Whiteside hardcover, there is an easy alternative, as Wilson's novel is now available via Smashwords, a site which includes both books original to the e-book format as well as out of print books whose rights have reverted to their authors. Smashwords is the friendliest of sites, offering previews and downloads in just about every e-book format around, and its authors enjoy a robust royalty from downloads.

All of which got me to wondering what other Arctic books of note might be available in similar formats. Amazon's Kindle store has a variety of free classics, among them Sherard Osborn's Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal. A mere 99 cents brings you Best's voyages of Frobisher, Back's narrative of his voyage aboard HMS Terror, or Nansen's Farthest North. Recent trade books, such as Andrew Lambert's The Gates of Hell, go for $12-$15. There are a quite a few hard-to-find books (in their physical format at least) that can be had instantly, such as Peter Cappelotti's By Airship to the North Pole, or Robert Edric's novel The Broken Lands. At the high end, you can even get the complete text of Mark Nutall's three-volume Encyclopedia of the Arctic electronically for a mere $364.00 (not too bad, perhaps, when one considers that "hard" copies go for $800+ on abebooks).

There are, of course, a host of polar classics available as free Google books, though these may not necessarily offer the clearest display, or have meaningful search functionality. Yet despite the wealth which beckons, seemingly free or at minimal cost, for me there will never be a substitute for the actual, physical books. My own library includes first editions by Franklin, Elisha Kent Kane, William Edward Parry, and a host of more recent books. Their look on the shelves, their feel in the hand, their ease on the eye are, and always will be, incomparable. Nevertheless, for those who are seeking a quick upload of a hard-to-find book, or planning a vacation where the hunger of reading is great and space is at a premium, the array of e-books in this area is vast, and steadily growing. One wonders, as did Ted Betts, whether some some sort of 19th-century "Kindle for Sir John Franklin" might, at least, have saved a good deal of room in the stores on a certain polar voyage.