Aaron Arnold's Reviews > Arctic Dreams

Arctic Dreams by Barry López
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's review
Feb 03, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: science, read-in-2012
Read in February, 2012

Writing a decent book isn't that difficult - there are multitudes of good writers with a facility for language who can come up with something readable merely by applying their talents to a given subject for a few months. It's a matter of mechanics more than anything else: give an established writer a topic and a deadline and you can be assured that most of the time the resulting product whether fiction or non-fiction will slide smoothly down the gullets of the reading public. To write a truly excellent book, however, you have to be truly passionate about your subject. This fire in the heart and in the fingers can't be mistaken; it's a vividness of imagery, a sharpness of perception, an outpouring of insight, and a rhythm of prose that makes reading the result both a pleasure and an education, which Arctic Dreams certainly is.

Arctic Dreams a nature book, and the finest books about nature are great examples of the unity between edification and entertainment that a driven author can achieve: to pick only American authors, John McPhee has made an entire career out of mining the lyrical side of the English language from the alpine majesties of the natural world, Jack London's lupine solitudes will always be peerless in their intensity and force, Rachel Carson almost singlehandedly revived the idea of the environment as a political issue worth caring about, and Henry David Thoreau is still worth rereading to understand the conflicted mindset of the modern lover of nature. Lopez borrows from each of those traditions in this work whose subtitle ("Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape") gives a good indication of his take on the Arctic. It talks about animals, birds, fish, whales, water, ice, the stars, the sun, Eskimos, explorers, painters, all refracted prismatically by the effect that this daunting edge of the Earth has on people like him who have lived in it for years.

It's obvious he had something of a religious experience out there in the Arctic - his lengthy digressions on the history of the narwhal or the migration of muskoxen flow in torrents that rejoin the main narrative after epic journeys of history and data, while his ruminations on the difficulty European painters had in replicating the peculiar clarity of light they saw in that alien landscape are just one of the ways he tries to get across the idea that this place can't be described in words, even if they have the fit and precision of ice blocks in an igloo. His discussions of paintings are key, and I highly recommend looking up the artwork he references while you read, because a lot of the book is devoted to the mindset you get in when surrounded by towering icebergs and endless plains. Having those depictions, as inadequate as they are, increases your appreciation for the daunting contrast he describes between the implacable earth and the ambition of man.

It's hard to read the book and come away not full of superlatives and flowery metaphors, which is a testament to the power of Lopez's prose. I haven't stopped reading so often to admire an apt phrase since I first read McPhee's Encounters With the Archdruid, and while Lopez is much more politically engaged in his subject than the scrupulously neutral McPhee, I feel like it only enhances the intensity of his ardor for the land and puts him more in Carson's realm.

I ultimately found that I had only two minor issues with the book, both related. The first issue concerns a brief discussion of the differences between Eskimo and outsider languages as they relate to the Arctic wilderness. Invoking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Lopez offers the claim that due to the grammatical construction of the Hopi language, it would be easier for a Hopi child to understand quantum mechanics than an English-speaking child. Suffice it to say, this is the worst kind of layman pseudo-science (I must have missed the overwhelming dominance of Hopi speakers in theoretical physics), and it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book. At least he didn't repeat the infamous "50 words for snow" canard.

The other issue is the general over-romanticism of the Eskimos and their way of life. While I've never been to the Arctic and have gotten all my knowledge of Eskimo culture from books, passage after passage veered dangerously close to noble savage clichés that told me more about Lopez's disdain for his own culture than anything about Eskimos. Couldn't you write that 14th century English peasants were "exquisitely adapted to the rhythms of their environment" with equal veracity, or rhapsodize about their "differing conceptions of time and space" in the same way? The commendable sympathy and insight Lopez had for the Eskimo way of life and the challenges it faces from modern society did not need the encrustations of idolatry he chose to provide. However, the book is still excellent, and is highly recommended if you like great writing about cool nature topics.

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