When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher once asked, "If you could live in any time period, which would it be?" She listened quite raptly to students as they explained where and when they would want to be, and when she came to me, she cut me off, saying "I bet you'd want to live in the future, Nick." I guess it was all the Orwell and Bradbury I was carrying around, but I couldn't help but feel annoyed. The truth was, in fact, that I'd much rather have lived in the past. To a certain degree, I guess that's still true, and for pretty much the same reason: I love adventure. In the world of GPS and satellite imagery, there is hardly a single square meter that hasn't been mapped, identified and catalogued on the entire planet (barring undersea), which kind of takes the mystery and hope out of the world just a little. It removes the idea of the exotic, as ethnocentric as that may seem from a post-modernist world view. I think one of the major things modern society suffers from is an insatiable desire, and no outlet for, adventure and discovery, which compels us to live vicariously through others and through entertainment, which are about the only places (except, I guess if you're an astronaut) you can find "undiscovered" country.
What I loved most about Grann's Lost City of Z is that it contains cultural commentary just like the anecdote above with some serious amateur history and investigative work into a really glamorous, if you're a Westerner, period of exploration and discovery. I think there is really something to be said about journalists doing historian work. Unlike historians, both modern and ancient, journalists understand the concept of writing for an audience that is not buried nose-deep in the terminology and technicalities of their profession. Z is very well-written, and Grann follows a pretty typical narrative structure, recounting both Percy Fawcett's life and eventual disappearance into the Amazon in search of a lost civilization and his own personal account of his own formative experiences, his research, and eventually his own trip into the Amazon, which ends up being suspenseful, humorous, and academic without being overly stuffy. I flipped pretty excitedly through the pages of this book as Grann touched my own inner child, and I began to get that same feeling that I had when watching an Indiana Jones movie (the old trilogy, not the Crystal Skull alien nonsense).
As I grew older, my love of history and discovery and anthropology and archeology was tempered by the realization that there were no grand, earthshattering, paradigm shifting discoveries left to be made. And that the life of a historian was far less glamorous than that of Indy. I love history. I find people fascinating. I find their stories, however mundane, as long as they are different from my own, fascinating. The Lost City of Z rekindled in me the fire to go out and discover. To research. To explore. And it's an amazing feeling. Seldom does a book give you a feeling, a glow, that transforms your character, and I believe that this is one.
Percy Fawcett's story is tragic, but romantic. A Victorian Age explorer, shedding the cultural constraints of English society and pursuing treasure and notoriety as a man among men, able to endure the world's harshest environment in the name of science and to simply challenge the unknown. Fawcett's life is filled with amazing coincidence, and even more amazing stories, making him seem like Indiana Jones come to life. Grann really did his homework and, as much as this book focuses on a mystery (What exactly happened to Fawcett on his last expedition into the Amazon from which he disappeared, never to be heard from again?), to his credit, Grann never allows for self-indulgence and inventiveness. A difficult task for any biographer or historian who sets out to KNOW, and find answers.
Even more surprising, there is some brilliant research and archeological findings presented toward the end of the book, where Fawcett's ultimate fate is discussed, that is really fascinating. A wealth of new research suggests that many of the legends of advanced civilizations in the heart of the Amazon (El Dorado's and the like), really aren't so far fetched. All historians love to indulge in the idea that there is some unknown branch of civilization, completely undiscovered, super advanced, that would completely change everything we thought we knew about humanity and historical development. The exciting thing about recent years in South American research, is that that hope, that fantasy even, is probably true. Screw Atlantis. Z is real, mostly, and though it's not made of solid gold and they don't have advanced alien technology, pre-Colombian Amazonian society was complex, vibrant and much, much more advanced than has ever been thought since Europeans first made contact almost 500 years ago.
This book is very readable for the non-historian, and even for people who are not history "buffs" (ugh - aka people who like the history chan---i mean the world war II channel). Like Fawcett's Z, Grann's work is really a relic of a bygone age, and one feels almost transported into the early 20th century and caught up in Fawcett's feverish pursuit of the undiscovered. A great book.
I got a library card from the local library, just recently reopened, to make myself stop buying books, but I'm already going to buy the first book I checked out. Fail.