And speaking of road trips on the grand scale…

In Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, historian Joyce E. Chaplin describes around-the-world voyages as geodramas in which travelers present themselves as actors on a global stage--a metaphor that she extends by dividing her history of circumnavigation into three "acts".

Chaplin begins with the fearful sea voyages of early modern man, when mariners who attempted to sail around the world were as likely to die as not. She moves on to the confident years of the imperial age, when circumnavigation became both a tool and a beneficiary of Western domination. She ends with the renewed fears and challenges of circling the globe that arose first with aviation and then with space travel. The dangers of orbiting the earth in a space ship are surprisingly similar to those of circumnavigating the globe in a fifteenth century caravel.

Round About the Earth is more than a series of adventures, though Chaplin tells plenty of stories about both major and minor figures in a lively and engaging voice. (Magellan, who didn't actually make it around the globe. Darwin, who never conquered seasickness. Laika, the first animal in space, whose terror, pain and death were broadcast via radio and television signals.) Chaplin intertwines her travelers' accounts with discussions of the political contexts that defined them, the technological innovations that made them easier, and, perhaps most interesting of all, the way they were reported. From bestselling fifteenth century travelers accounts to NASA's television broadcasts, circumnavigation has been about the story as much as about the adventure.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers

In which I set down my road map and consider the globe

My Own True Love and I recently decided to cancel our Great River Road Trip. It was a good decision; our old cat and our old house both require our attention and the Mississippi will still be there come spring.

Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate to consider a bigger picture than road signs, road maps and our GPS.  In short, globes.

Globes: 400 Years of Exploration, Navigation and Power, by professional globe-restorer Sylvia Sumira, is a history of globemaking from the late 15th through the late 19th centuries, when globes were used as educational tools, scientific instruments, and status symbols. It is also breathtakingly beautiful.

The first two sections of the book are scholarly articles in which Sumira considers not only who made globes, but why and how. The first of these, "A Brief History of Globes", is clearly for specialists. The second will fascinate anyone who has wondered how globe makers wrap a flat map around a ball--a step-by-step description of the construction of printed globes from the process of forming a papier-mâché sphere around a mold to the challenges of fitting 2-D printed sections (triangular pieces called gores) around a 3-D object.

The text is almost irrelevant next to the photographs of sixty historic globes, most of them from the collection of the British Library. They range in rarity from an unusual hand-painted globe made in 17th century China to mass-produced globes from the end of the 19th century. Sumira includes printed gores drawn by master cartographers, self-assembly paper globes made as inexpensive educational aids for children, tiny pocket globes, elaborate clockwork globes, celestial globes that map the heavens and an oddly modern 19th century teaching globe that folds up like an umbrella. The brief essays that accompany the photographs consider each object both in terms of its provenance and historical context and also as a work of art.

Certainly worth a spin, Globes will grab the imagination of anyone fascinated by maps.

This review (or at least most of it) previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


salt shaker

Anyone who sat through a third grade social studies lesson learned that Europe's search for pepper changed the world. Prince Henry the Navigator, Columbus, and all that. But did you know that salt played an even bigger role in world history?

Unlike pepper, we can't live without salt. It is as essential to life as water. Our bodies need it to digest food, transmit nerve impulses, and move muscles, including the heart.

When we were hunter-gatherers, the salt we needed came from wild game. (Sometimes wild game got the salt it needed by licking the places where we urinated. The circle of life can be weird.) As mankind settled and our diet changed, we had to find salt from other sources, not only for ourselves, but for the animals we domesticated.

In theory, salt can be found almost everywhere on earth. It fills the oceans, lies in rich veins in rock near the earth's surface, and crusts the desert beds of long vanished seas. But until the Industrial Revolution, it was often difficult to obtain.*

The law of supply and demand is almost as dependable as the law of gravity. Because salt was hard to come by, it was valuable. It was one of the first international commodities and the first government monopoly.** Merchant caravans carried it across the most inhospitable places of the earth. Governments taxed it. Roman soldiers were paid in it.*** Mohandas Gandhi staged a protest around it.

The next time you pick up the salt shaker, show a little respect.

* The phrase "back to the salt mines" is rooted in that fact that mining salt was dangerous work, historically done by slaves or prisoners. As late as the mid- 20th century, both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany used labor in the slave mines as punishment.

** China, ca 221 BCE.

***Hence the phrase "worth your salt". Not to mention the word "salary", which comes from the Latin word for salt.

Image courtesy of Carlos Porto at