When I saw this book over at Dutch Book Publisher Omniboek, I fell in love right away. I am obsessed with journals, old photographs and especially if they have to do with travel. So what better than a book focusing on just that? With over 300 pages, this book promised to be an amazing resource guide on the world’s most adventurous explorers, so let’s have a closer look and see if it’s as interesting as the cover of the book promises us for it to be….
Please note: While I own the Dutch copy of this book, I’ve written this review in English and used the details for the English version in the review, so you’ll find it easy to get the book yourself!
What we'll cover in this article
EXPLORER’S SKETCHBOOKS REVIEW
About the Writers
British Kari Herbert is daughter of polar explorer Sir Wally Herbert. She spent the first few years of her life living on a remote island in the Arctic with the Polar Inuit of Northwest Greenland. Because… why not? She has continued to travel extensively and became a travel writer and photographer for a wide range of newspapers and magazines. Kari is the founder of Polarworld, an independent publishing company that specializes in producing books on photography and exploration of the Polar Regions. She lives in Cornwall in England with her daughter Nell and husband Huw Lewis-Jones, with whom she wrote this book.
Huw Lewis-Jones is a British historian, editor, broadcaster and art director. He is the grandson of a Royal Navy commander and attended college on the Isle of Guernsey, before studying as a geography undergraduate in Cambridge. He earned a Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy in the history of exploration at the University of Cambridge as well. His ongoing research expertise lies in Antarctic and Arctic exploration, portraiture, print culture, and the history of photography and he lectures widely on these and other subjects.
The Content of the Book
Even though our technology and equipment has changed over the centuries, there is one item that most explorers still carry with them today, and that is the travel journal. In ‘Explorers’ Sketchbooks’, you can see the sketchbooks and personal journals of 75 adventurous men and woman from around the world.
It’s incredible to imagine the importance the words and pictures in these journals had back in the days, They had the power to change life, as they could literally expand the world before people’s eyes. All these reports of scientific discoveries, descriptions of far-away countries and new species or experiences made would all lead to a bigger collective knowledge, much in a way that modern travel writers and bloggers are capturing their amazement, curiosity, fears and frustrations about the world around them.
For many explorers, writing a journal meant not just writing about their despairs or hardship during their travels, but it also brought a moment of luck as they described a beautiful view or drew something memorable. In this book, you can read all about the ‘Big Names’ such as James Cook, Charles Darwin and David Livingstone, but there is a lot of space to highlight the lesser, or even unknown cartographers, anthropologists, pioneers and biologists out there. And even a few Dutch ones, like Jan Brandes, Abel Tasman and Alexdrine Tinne.
As the authors of this book phrase so beautifully: “What connects everyone in this book, is that they all took a risk at a certain time in their divergent lives. They chose to defy conventions, to venture on a difficult journey, to leave the comfort of home behind and go on an exploration. They all let the promise of the unimaginable lead them over the horizon and were prepared to embrace the unknown. And they all made a report of what they had seen for others who would follow in their footsteps. To open the notebooks of others, we are able to accompany them on significant historical journeys.”
In between the biographies of the explorers, a couple of other interesting people share their thoughts on their own sketchbooks: David Ainley (polar-ecologist), Alan Bean (NASA astronaut and artist), Wade Davis (anthropology professor), Tony Foster (British artist), Redmond O-Hanlon (travel writer) and Sir Ghillean Prance (botanist and ecologist), each have their own stories to tell.
Photos & Illustrations
Along with the biography of each explorer, you can find a series of coloured prints of (pages from) their personal sketchbooks. These notebooks themselves are the real stars in this book and they get the stage they deserve: the book is printed on thick paper and with a hard, cardboard cover in landscape format (just under A4 paper size), and the photos sometimes cover the entire, or opposite pages, so you can really have a close look at all the details and writings of the books.
Of course, before the invention of photography and film, field observations had to be taken in the way of logbooks, maps and drawings. The entire success of an expedition could depend on the drawings made by pen and ink, so it’s no surprise that most of them are little pieces of art on their own.
This book weighs almost 1,5 kilo, so taking it on your travels is not something I would recommend. This is not so much a practical guide, but rather an inspirational work, a coffee table book that you want to flip through every now and then to get new insights from or to use as a reference guide to learn more about your favourite explorers.
The book is organised in alphabetical order by last name of the explorer (because according to the writers, no person in this book is more important then the other) and each chapter features their short biography and some (details from their notebooks). There is a register at the end of the book if you’re looking for something specific.
Please note: because I own the Dutch copy of this book, I translated these quotes to the best of my abilities. It could be that the original quote from the English book is slightly different, but I hope the message remained the same:
“Travel not only as an adventure – although there would be excitement – but as a transformation, as a movement through holy space. I learned that when you open up for possibilities, for situations in which you cannot do anything else than proceed, and the only option is success, you create a momentum that eventually leads you to new levels of experience and involvement that seemed unattainable for several months. You throw yourself into the abyss, then discover that it’s a feather bed.” – Wade Davis
“Despite all the technological advances that make regular fieldwork like mine on the edge of the world available, sometimes all you need is clear weather, a notebook and a sharp pencil.” – David Ainley
“You do not have to travel to the corners of the world to have a satisfying experience – I sometimes find a lot of joy bringing my painting supplies to the little swamp past our village, or walking along the coast, a little further. Whether it’s in the wilderness or just a stone’s throw away from home, with some exercise, it’s possible to let the environment flow through you. Just walk and marvel. Sit still for a while, breathe deeply and look.”- Tony Foster
“If we want to pass on this planet in a good state to future generations, we must act quickly and carefully. We lose species due to human activity, but the size of this loss is still not valued. (…) We also lost our spiritual bond with the earth and the gift to appreciate the rain forest for what it is. Conservation is equally a matter of justice as of the environment.” – Sir Ghillean Prance
WOW. What an amazing book, is all I can really say. This is not something you finish reading on one dull evening, as a matter of fact, I’ve had it for weeks now and still haven’t finished reading all of the explorer stories. But that’s totally fine! This is a book you want to display in your book case, and every now and then reach out to and read a bit in. You can take it one explorer at a time and don’t have to read it in chronological order, either.
I am always fascinated to read about other cultures through the eyes of others and that’s exactly what this book is about. As anthropology professor Wade Davis shares: “As an explorer, I always wanted to find those great stories about wonder that you can find in various cultures. Stories that teach us something about the human experience. In this way, when we travel with open eyes and an open mind, the discovery never stops.”
This book is a visual homage to the many adventurous and curious explorers that have gone before us, and it really encourages you to go out into the world and discover it with your own five senses. It’s a wonderful reminder of how precious and mysterious the world we live in is, and that we should be careful and mindful with it. It makes a great gift for an adventurous friend, but also a precious gift to yourself. And if nothing else, get yourself a notebook and pencil, and head outside… There is a whole world out there for you to explore!
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This post is also available in: Dutch