Sunday, January 1, 2012

Winter Break Reading

The number of books I read over the month I was home is somewhat embarrassing. For this I would like to thank the inventor of the snowshoe, the founder of Vertical World, and the creators of How I Met Your Mother.

The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy [re-read]
The key to understanding the sequels to All The Pretty Horses is the fact that they are not sequels. Cities of the Plain was written as a screenplay long before the other two but only published later. The Crossing, as the most wandering, tangental, and philosophical of the three, makes the most sense as the last in the trilogy. It provides the backstory for the supporting character of Billy Parham in Cities of the Plain and contains some of the most poignant ruminations on religion, revolution, and civilization found in McCarthy’s writing. This book, along with Blood Meridian and The Road, occupies the rotating position of My Favorite Novel. The story of the wolf brings me to tears every time. The hermit under the transept is the best metaphor for post-enlightenment religion I have ever read. Every person who believes that something has been lost in the world should read this book.

Killing Dragons, The Conquest of the Alps - Fergus Fleming
Popular histories of mountaineering, and these are the only kind, suffer from several inherent problems. They are not written by professors of history, and they are written by popular history writers or mountaineers. Killing Dragons is of the former bent. Fleming’s composition is lucid, his wit is wry, his subject is interesting, but his skills as a historian are lacking. He does not maintain a professional tone and frequently lapses into anachronism and colloquialism. Fleming’s background is in the history of exploration, and so his most insightful analysis is the comparisons he draws between the second wave of exploration - the race for the poles, the expeditions into the African interior - and the “conquest” of the Alps. Being that this is a popular history of the story-telling vein however, he does not develop this into an argument. Overall, his research is thorough, I especially enjoyed his treatment of Conrad Gesner and the early mountaineers, and his work may be one of the best histories available, but this demonstrates more how much work remains to be done than the quality of Killing Dragons.
Admittedly, the Fleming’s book does pick up toward the second half, with the accent of the Matterhorn figuring largely, but this is due more to the value of the story itself than the skill of its writer.

The Great Days
Walter Bonatti, one of the greatest mountaineers of the mid-20th century for his many important ascents in the Alps and his part in the team that made the first ascent of K2, recounts a few of the major climbs of the second half of his career. Aside from Touching The Void, this is easily the best mountaineering book I have read: lucid, detailed, philosophical, tied to the past and looking toward the future, well-mannered but not afraid to admit and address controversy. In one particularly poignant passage, prefacing his ascent of the Whymper Spur on the north face of Grandes Jorasses, he describes his childhood experiences during the second world war and lays bare the entire existential attitude and how it leads to mountaineering.

Eiger: The Vertical Arena
This book attempts to be an anthology of short features on the the topic of the north face of the Eiger. It has an editor instead of an author. What it lacks is both any sense of scholarly rigor and cohesion. Some of the chapters are much more interesting than others but as a whole the text is dull and tiresome. The chapter on Eiger literature is especially banal. While perhaps valuable to a scholar of the Eiger as an example of how much work remains to be done, it offers neither original nor insightful analysis of mountaineering.

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