Taking Some Comfort in an Old Favorite Book

“Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage,” by Alfred Lansing (Non-Fiction)

Review submitted by Peter Kelley, FEL Member

We are in such a strange time, I find getting lost in an old favorite book can be a small comfort. So I’m here to write about an old book I’ve liked for years — a story of courage and persistence against great odds — that seems mostly forgotten now.

And I wonder if other people have old, now-obscure books they love and reread, like me.

When Friends of the Edmonds Library members were invited to contribute to this blog, I thought again of that old favorite. Maybe also because I just bought a handsome copy of the book at last year’s Friends of the Edmonds Library Annual Sale.

It’s titled “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage,” by Alfred Lansing, from 1959, and is the thrilling — really! — and true telling of Shackleton and his 28-member crew, their failed attempt to cross the Antarctic continent in 1915, and the hardships they endured over months after their ship was crushed by ice floes. Shackleton did not lose a single man in their epic struggle back to civilization.

If you stop by the Edmonds Library like I do — used to and will again — you might have seen the book prominently placed in the display cabinet just before the Annual Sale — a nice hardback first edition that sold for the princely sum of ten bucks. I love library book sales. I’d bought and loved an old paperback of the book years before, so it was fun to spy this first edition seemingly waiting for me.

As I get older, I’m allowing myself to re-read books if I feel like it. I figure what the hell. This is one of several books I’ve revisited before and will again. I hope we all have books like that.

Wikipedia and other sites tell me that the author Lansing (1921-1975) edited a small newspaper, wrote for Colliers magazine and also worked as an editor for Time Inc. Books. In preparing his story, he interviewed 10 of Shackleton’s former crew members and was granted access to the journals and personal diaries of eight others. What resulted is a deeply researched, thoughtfully written history that’s also a gripping page-turner.

Among the things I like to read is a simple story vividly told, and that’s another reason this book appeals to me. There is no ponderous, writerly exposition before you get to the good stuff; just look at Lansing’s opening sentences — crisis hits in just a few words.

“The order to abandon ship was given at 5 p.m. For most of the men, however, no order was needed because by then everybody knew that the ship was done and that it was time to give up trying to save her.”

They accepted the defeat of their ship, but Shackleton and his men themselves were never defeated.

It can be revealing to look at how a favorite book was received critically, so I found the original New York Times review, also from 1959. The Times called “Endurance” a great adventure story because it was true to life.

“Lansing points out that none of the men were heroes, in the meaning that fiction has given to that word,” the Times wrote. “Rather one comes away with the feeling that the human race was the hero.”

These words seem fitting now, too.

May we all be as brave as Shackleton and his crew, whose story is so well told in this old book. And may the human race be the hero once again.