Book Review: The Explorers
A Story of Fearless Outcasts, Blundering Geniuses, and Impossible Success
By Marin Dugard
Simon & Schuster, 2014
Extensively experienced hack and professional ghostwriter Martin Dugard’s main offense against the intelligence, credulity, and good taste of all readers everywhere has been his serial collaboration with broadcaster/idiot Bill O’Reilly in three (so far) utterly moronic travesties, Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, and Killing Jesus. He also did the spadework for James Patterson’s hysterically fraudulent “nonfiction thriller” The Murder of King Tut, and on his own he wrote, among other things, 2005’s Chasing Lance, in which he managed the amazing knight-fork of simultaneously making the Tour de France seem boring and Lance Armstrong seem heroic.
A reader thus apprised might legitimately ask not only why Martin Dugard continues to get work in the writing field but also, more importantly, why anybody would even borrow one of his books from the library, let alone spend money on one. There comes a point, such a reader might assert, when a writer has in fact exhausted his original claim on the public, and Martin Dugard has long since passed that point.
Martin Dugard has indeed long since passed that point. He has book contracts, but he is an embarrassment to the Republic of Letters and ought to take up a different profession.
Nevertheless, he writes, and his latest book, The Explorers, isn’t exactly a conversion moment on the road to Damascus: it stinks, and it stinks just as bad and in just the same ways as so much of what else he’s written.
The book is nominally about seven qualities Dugard maintains are held in common by the great explorers in human history. These qualities are: curiosity, hope, passion, courage, independence, self-discipline, perseverance – which should come as no surprise, since, after all, what other qualities could be listed? Roman Catholicism? Alcoholism? Slightly subliminated homosexuality? A crushing need for pocket money? When you approach the few little fact-cards you’ve assembled looking for pietistic simplifications, you’ll find them no matter what kind of dope-guzzling wife-beaters you’re forced to deal with.
Precious few facts even from those fact-cards, of course. The Explorers will be on nonfiction lists and even perhaps shelved in bookstore history sections, but it cares as little about history as anything else Dugard has written, either under his own name or the names of others. He finds the famous newspaper ad Ernest Shackleton placed for his grueling expeditions:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey,” read the advertisement placed by Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, “small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”
A footnote at the bottom of the page reads: “Many believe it was apocryphal. Real or not, it has only added to the Shackleton legend.” But it isn’t that “many believe” the ad is apocryphal, it’s “all historians maintain” – the ad is demonstrably fraudulent, and the only reason it ‘adds to the Shackleton legend’ is because it’s repeated by Wikipedia-skimming schoolchildren and writers like Martin “real or not” Dugard.
He gives breezy sketches of Richard Francis Burton and Captain Cook and George Mallory and Roald Amundsen and David Livingstone and Shackleton – readers who know anything about these figures will learn nothing new about them, and readers who know nothing about them will learn nothing reliable, because every detail of The Explorers is slaved to homiletics. Facts are boiled away into a mist of clichés:
So it was with the explorers. They didn’t just set out on journeys; they undertook them with a powerful passion. They researched the lands through which they would travel, read the journals of explorers who had gone ahead of them, then lived every day as if it were their last.
Virtually none of the explorers Dugard brings up did all or even any of the things he lists here, but in a sloppy book like this, there are worse sins – like, for instance, simple incoherence, which crops up on almost every page and sometimes gallops away at length:
Aviation became synonymous with independence. From its earliest days, exploration of the air demanded that pilots be self-reliant in ways that most others would deem either irresponsible or downright mad – but that those flying the aircraft realized was all part of surpassing their mental, physical, and emotional limits. Pilots even came up with a term for this behavior: “pushing the edge of the envelope.” In spirit it means the same as the more mundane “thinking outside the box,” but takes on a much more powerful meaning when flaring the afterburner nozzle to launch off a ship’s deck or punch through the sound barrier.
The reader will of course want to point out that the cliché “pushing the edge of the envelope” isn’t synonymous with the cliché “thinking outside the box,” but for Dugard any cliché is as good as any other, and he lets his narrative, such as it is, barrel on from thinly-disguised FOX News-style sloganeering to completely undisguised FOX News-style sloganeering, especially when it gets to its real point, which has nothing to do with a history of 19th and 20th century explorers and everything to do with promulgating the same kind of dippy small-town barbershop tub-thumping that Dugard either shares in common with blockhead demagogue O’Reilly or, worse, learned from him. In that world-view, all the good guys are basically 1950s white Americans whether they know it or not, and all of them are propped up in front of readers not for their own sake, not for any reason of history, but to facilitate sermonizing:
Independent individuals, on the other hand, constantly pursue their highest potential. They are inner-directed, following their hearts and goals, not defining themselves by others to be happy. Their self-worth does not come through society’s expectations, but through following their inner quests to their ultimate conclusion. The need for approval that presents itself in the nonindependent (“I must be liked by you to be happy”) is either minimal or nonexistent. The truly independent have an ability to create structure in the middle of chaos, have the sorts of hyperfocused memory that allows them to categorize and recall data, and are almost devoid of envy (“I must be like you to be happy”) because it is the antithesis of what it means to think and feel for one self.
No reader of history – let alone any historian – will have any idea what such a foamy paragraph is doing in a work that on any level wants to be considered a work of history, but long-time readers of Martin Dugard won’t be surprised to read swill like this.
It has to be assumed that most of those long-time readers (excepting, of course, book reviewers) are fans of Dugard and so will know what they’re getting in any of his books. Anybody else – any reader considering this book because they find its nominal subject interesting – should be warned away. Your reading time is limited, after all; it shouldn’t be squandered on garbage like this.