Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Book Review: The Oxford Companion to Exploration

The Oxford Companion to World Exploration, ed. David Buisseret (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

The Oxford Companions are strange creatures, neither fish nor fowl. Outwardly they resemble the cross between a dictionary and encyclopedia. But this description doesn’t quite do them justice. A companion, after all, is something or someone with whom we have a relationship, a bond that transcends that of a mere guide or reader. In a review of the Oxford Companion to Music, David Schiff points out that a companion “implies something more intimate and less predictable… informed but not infallible, quirky, opinionated, worldly yet parochial.” This is a lovely notion in principle, but could easily turn out to be a mess in practice. Fortunately, the companion format proves liberating for editor David Buisseret, who, with a team of section editors and advisors, has developed a creative fusion of subjects, from short biographies of 250 words to comprehensive pieces of 10,000 words or more.

David Buisseret

Buisseret brings a big-tent philosophy to Companion, helped, no doubt, by his wide-ranging research on cartography and exploration, and his twenty years of experience as editor of Terrae Incognitae, the journal for the history of discoveries. “We have defined [exploration],” Buisseret writes, “as the process by which one or more people leave their society and venture to another part of the world (or, now, heavens), then return in order to explain what they have seen.” This is about as expansive a definition for exploration as one can give, and would probably include my own travels abroad (I do not receive an entry). As a result, the 700 entries of the two-volume Companion consist of a heterogeneous mix of subjects, from the famous (Christopher Columbus, Antarctica, Sputnik) to the obscure (Odoric of Pordenone, Chinese Empirical Maps, Quiviria). Serious readers of exploration will find two features useful. First, Companion provides comprehensive surveys of exploration in all major geographical regions (Africa, Arctic, Pacific, etc). Each of these is broken up into sub-entries that provide useful detail and context. Under the entry “Central and South America,” for example, the reader finds subentries on: “Colonies and Empires,” “Conquests and Colonization,” “Scientific Inquiry,” “Trade and Trade Goods,” “Trade Routes,” and “Utopian Quests.” Second, Companion offers a number of sophisticated thematic entries on exploration, such as “Alterity,” “Imperialism and Exploration,” and “Fictions of Exploration,” which touch on issues that will be of interest to academic audiences. The Companion does have its weak spots. Major entries use multiple authors for each subentry which often leads to some repetition of material. Obscure explorers (such as polar adventurer Charles Hall) sometimes receive their own entries whereas major explorers (Robert Peary, putative discoverer of the North Pole) do not. Moreover, inclusive does not mean exhaustive; any companion on world exploration should come prepared to weigh in on the “Grand Tour,” “Noble Savage,” and “Contact Zone.” An entry on the last term would be especially welcome since “Contact Zone,” coined by Mary Louise Pratt in her 1992 work Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation is now used by many in the academy as a conceptual upgrade of the Eurocentric term “Frontier.” It would also show that Buisseret means it when he tells us of his “struggles against the European connotation of the word [exploration].” Still, it is too easy to take pot shots at anything this expansive and multi-authored. All in all, Companion is a very useful reference book, especially given its slim, two-volume size. If it doesn’t take the reader to every corner of the field (what volume could?), it comes with an excellent system of navigation: table of contents, topical outline of entries, directory of contributors, index, and seventy-five colored plates. Ironically, its ease of use only makes one feel guiltier for enjoying it. Browsing its pages, feet up, sipping tea, the reader confronts the some of the most arduous events in human history.

This review will be published in the upcoming issue of the British Journal for the History of Science. My thanks to Simon Schaffer and Gregory Radick for permission to reprint it here.

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