Every month I post a round-up of the reading material that’s passed through my world, some newly published, and some previously published but new to me.
I spent much of the last month on the road in Central Europe (blogs upcoming), giving me a luxurious abundance of reading time. So this month I’d like to draw attention to a book that aims to do no less than unravel what it is that sends people on ‘quests’, and the story of what has often been called the single greatest expedition for a generation. Let’s start with the latter.
Dark Waters / The Seed Planted Deep by Jason Lewis
If the word ‘epic’ could only be granted only to a single feat of human resilience and determination in the context of an expedition, there’s little doubt that Jason Lewis’s would be a top candidate. In 1994 — the year I started secondary school, aged 11 — Jason, along with university friend Steve Smith, began an odyssey around the world that would take no less than fourteen years to complete.
The scale of the journey that unfolded was immense. The pair met at university during Thatcher’s reign. ‘Expedition 360’ was conceived under John Major, and launched around the same time as the National Lottery was born. The crossing of the Atlantic by pedal boat and the USA on rollerblades provides the storyline of Dark Waters, the first book in Jason’s trilogy of the journey.
Following a road traffic accident which broke both of Jason’s legs, almost a year of rehab would pass in the States, during which Tony Blair’s tenure began, followed by a year’s detour towards South America and back, and then another year of fundraising. New Year’s Day 1999 saw the pair pedalling a boat across the Pacific, after which Steve left the expedition, with Jason completing the Pacific crossing in the new millenium. The second book, The Seed Buried Deep, deals with this part of Jason’s story.
September 11th 2001 found Jason in Australia, where he stayed for four years and saw the US invade Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain pass the Civil Partnership Act, and his mate Steve publish Pedalling To Hawaii*. Kayaking to South-east Asia and then cycling to India, Jason crossed the Arabian Sea to Djibouti in 2007 and began cycling north towards the Middle East and Europe as Brown took Prime Ministership.
He arrived back in the UK, having covered 46,505 miles over 4,833 days, a few days after the launch of the original iPhone (and three blokes called Tom, Andy and Mark set off on a bike journey they’d called Ride Earth).
It is seven years since Expedition 360 was completed, a full two decades since it began, and those of us who have read the first two books in Jason’s trilogy are still eagerly awaiting the publication of the third and final book. I say eagerly, for Jason has proved not just a tenacious adventurer but a top-class writer too, and these first two books are among the most brave and entertaining I’ve read in the genre.
What I particularly enjoy about his writing is that he hasn’t been afraid to recount the full spectrum of his experience, from the early days of desperation in trying to mount an expedition from a North London squat, through to his own inner journey towards self-awareness that begins on the Atlantic, to his evolving relationship with his expedition partner, and the parts played by the many and varied souls with which he comes into contact. The brush strokes are broad where they need to be, at other times detailed and subtle, but always balanced and clear-minded.
We as readers should thank our lucky stars that Jason turned down the big publishing deal with the ghost-writer, the six-week turnaround and the lucrative pre-Christmas launch date that was offered to him on a plate. Just like the journey, the retelling and publishing of his story has been a determined and honest struggle, rather than rushed through on the coat-tails of a big team and a big budget. And I don’t imagine for a second that it’s not all the better for it.
Look out for the publication of part three, To The Brink, in the not-too-distant future.
The Happiness Of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau
From three books about a single quest, we segue neatly into a single book about dozens and dozens of other quests around the world, past and present — only a handful of which involve travelling vast distances around the globe.
The Happiness Of Pursuit, released last month, aims to explore the nature of the quest in its broadest possible sense. Hanging from the central thread of the author’s own mission to visit every country in the world, we come across people making athletic, artistic, personal and social endeavours that satisfy both the literal and metaphorical meanings of ‘journeys with a purpose’, including a man who gave up speaking for more than a decade and lived a life of silence, a woman who spent more than a year living at the top of a tree in Tasmania, a lady who dedicated her life to sighting every species of bird on the planet, and a great many more.
Rather than simply recounting these stories (which would be interesting enough on its own), what Chris has attempted to do is distil common patterns and threads from these stories, exploring how and (more importantly) why people embark upon such missions, the way in which they tend to be ignited or conceived, the common phases that people pass through on the way, and the outcome of doing them, which is really at the crux of the book’s thesis: that the concept of a quest can be used, one way or another, to find meaning and purpose in one’s life.
I should state for reasons of candour that parts of my own journey (as recounted in Janapar) make an appearance in this book. Chris’s philosophy is a community-centric one, and though it would have been easier to compile a list of well-known, high-profile quests into a book like this, he instead chose to crowdsource a range of far more unusual stories for this book from his existing community of readers, of which I have been a member for several years.
The Happiness Of Pursuit is shorter than I was expecting. It is neither a comprehensive psychosocial analysis of motivation and fulfilment; nor is it a manual for repeating any of the quests featured within its pages.
What it is, however, is a fascinating, enjoyable and broad-ranging exposé of the many and varied ways in which ordinary people, feeling something lacking in their lives, have taken an all-encomassing leap of faith into the unknown in order to fill that void. And I feel that it’s the repeated mantra that these really are just ordinary people that will prompt those readers who feel the same urge to set forth on quests of their own. For that quality alone it is worth your time.