Late for Nowhere

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Book Review: Pole to Pole by Pat Farmer

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Rare is the person who can perform amazing deeds and then write an extraordinary book on the subject; standout adventurer-writers include Jon Krakauer, Kira Salak, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and Ernest Shackleton.
Unfortunately, ultra-marathon runner Pat Farmer is not among them.
If I were asked to rate Farmer’s accomplishments as an adventurer– spending 10 months running nearly 21,000 kilometers from North Pole to South Pole, with barely a day off during the entire journey, and with the noble aim of raising donations for the Red Cross – I would, without qualms, give him five stars.
But his book Pole to Pole: One Man, 20 Million Steps, which recounts the expedition from beginning to end, fails to satisfy. Told in the form of a daily journal, the book is dull and repetitive, the descriptions clichéd and forgettable, and the “insights” lacking in profundity. We read over and over again about Farmer’s sore knee, the type of road kill he encounters during the day, how much he misses his kids, how his journey is 90 percent mental – and not much else. It reads more like an interminable series of unedited blog posts than a proper book.
Farmer also demonstrates a disappointingly narrow view of the world. At one point he wonders “if the hospitality I’ve been experiencing [in Canada and the United States] will cease at the Mexican border.”As varied and vibrant as Mexico’s culture is, we learn virtually nothing about it once he enters the country. Instead, barely a sentence passes without some reference to “bandits” or “drug-runners,” and this obsession with negative stereotypes continues unabated all the way through the Central and South American countries through which he passes.
Farmer explains at the end that the book “reflects my thoughts and feelings each day as I ran from pole to pole” and that “I have not returned to revise my words.” It’s understandable that after spending all day running 80-plus kilometers he would have more blood in his legs than in his brain, but this is all the more reason to abandon the day-by-day journal format and pen a retrospective account into which he might have injected more analysis, heartfelt introspection, and “bigger-picture” insight.
But it’s also doubtful whether this alternative approach would have made for a more compelling read. As Farmer proudly writes, “I’ve never been a great reader, preferring to experience life first-hand rather than vicariously” – as if it’s not possible to balance both. As such, the book goes a long way toward reinforcing my belief that to be a good writer, it’s necessary to be a good reader.
Of course it’s possible that I’m underestimating Farmer’s genius as a writer. Perhaps his aim was to write a book that forces the reader to share the tedium of his adventure, requiring tremendous fortitude to continue turning the pages and slog all the way through to the end. If so, anyone who reads the entire book should feel proud that they made it all the way from one pole to the other. But I was able to do so only because I was using the book as bedtime reading, for which its soporific effect was just the ticket for drifting off into a good night’s sleep.

Written by latefornowhere

April 7, 2015 at 3:38 am

Posted in Books

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