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Friday, August 19, 2011

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen



Good - recommended reading, but not without its faults

First things first: this history teacher strongly recommends reading Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. Magellan and the early European explorers have long been overlooked - I can only assume due to Politically Correct attitudes among "professional" historians at the university level. Too bad. One does not have to admire everything that Magellan, Columbus and the other explorers did to admire bravery, audacity and the urge to explore that these men displayed.

Positives:

-Bergreen's text is very approachable. He tells the story in a well-paced manner and sets up the political background quite well. His portrayal of Charles I and all of the crises he faced intrigues me so much that I am going to look for a book about him.

-Bergeen uses research resources that have not been used before in a popular work - more information and perspectives is always better.

Negatives:

-Maps. This book has almost none, and the ones included are mostly examples of 16th century map work - they are not in conjunction with the text. Bergreen includes a NASA photo of the Straits of Magellan that I find as indecipherable as an ultrasound. A conventional map would have been so much more welcome.

Ferdinand Magellan (1468-1521)
-Endnotes. Bergreen did a lot of research for this book, but he does not use a single note in the text (I would not let my high school students get away with this oversight). His endnotes are organized by chapter, but this style makes it very hard to tie specific facts with specific endnotes. Also, if you are going to make commentary in your endnotes, be a decent fellow and make them footnotes so the reader does not have to flip back and forth to the end to see your comments.

-Opinion inserted into the text. It is impossible to eliminate bias from a work of history. The simple process of choosing what to include and what to leave out demonstrates that bias. However, several times Bergreen includes gratuitous comments about the commanders of Magellan's fleet after Magellan died. When critical of their choices, he would say things like "it was just the sort of mishap that Magellan would likely have prevented..." (363) and "Not even Magellan would risk taking one, and only one, ship all the way from the Spice Islands back to Spain." (363-4) One cannot know what Magellan would do and it is best to avoid (or at the very least, seriously limit) speculation.

All of that being said, I still strongly recommend this book.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe.

Reviewed on March 4, 2008.

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