The popularity of historical works is easily the most encouraging trend in current book selling. From such natural disasters as the volcanic eruption at Krakatoa and the Galveston hurricane to tales of seafaring adventure, such books are being snapped up by audiences.
Best of all, political correctness and historical revisionism seem to be least banished to fringe texts and humanities courses at major universities. Most of the new books are an example of a new realism in writing, shunning political correctness without returning to the hagiographies of the past century.
A prime example of this is Martin Dugard's "Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone." A decade ago, the only way this book would have been published would have been as an expose of the foibles of its main subjects as judged by modern liberal standards.
Stanley undoubtedly would have been the brutal boss, no better than the slavers he made deals with, while Livingstone's belief that colonialism was the way to stop the slave trade and further the cause of Christianity would have invalidated both his good works and his extraordinary exploits as an explorer.
While giving enough context of the period and each life leading up to Livingston's last expedition and Stanley's run for glory, "Into Africa" focuses mainly on the events leading up to the famous "Dr. Livingston, I presume" moment.
This gives the book tremendous forward momentum while whetting the reader's appetite for even more information about the rest of the story behind these larger-than-life figures.
Dr. David Livingstone was England's greatest hero of the 19th century. At a time when his country was dogged by doomed military adventures such as the Crimean War, Livingstone was a great adventurer and a crusader for justice and Jesus. He almost single-handedly opened the interior of Africa to the West and fought a valiant battle against the Arab slave traders who, up to that time, considered the area to be their exclusive domain.
In 1866, Livingstone decided to settle the question that the great explorers Burton and Speke were publicly debating and which had ruined their partnership - he would, once and for all, find the source of the Nile. But once he departed into the interior, he disappeared from view, throwing his country into a panic.
Meanwhile, Henry Morton Stanley, a Civil War veteran of unknown parentage with a flair for writing, was preparing to take an almost suicidal raft trip down the Platte River, which he planned to sell as an adventure story. It set a pattern for Stanley's life, as over the next few years, he would become the prime chronicler of violent events for the New York Herald, the world's most popular newspaper.
In 1868, James Gordon Bennett, the Herald's wealthy publisher, decided he was going to beat the English establishment to the biggest story in the world by funding an expedition led by one of his reporters to find Livingstone. His natural choice was Stanley, who had covered the British war in Abyssinia, beating Brit reporters to almost every punch.
Thus was launched perhaps the greatest journalistic assignment of all time and one of exploration's greatest stories.
Dugard, who scored with his biography of Capt. James Cook, is even better here with a thrilling story that will keep readers up at night. Stanley and Livingston faced tribal war, mutiny, dysentery, malaria, venomous insects, impassible terrain and brutal weather, and Dugard's narrative describes it all with flair and immediacy.
Most important, however, is the way he brings these two giants to life. They were complete opposites who would be inextricably linked by history.
Livingstone was fearless but also selfless. He exuded a spirituality that not only attracted converts but also won him the guarded respect of the Arab slavers he fought so bitterly. He accomplished with humility and kindness what most explorers won with the musket and the lash.
Stanley approached Africa with the notion of matching brute force with brute force, and it almost killed him on many occasions. He was a glory-seeker of pure ambition and, at one point, even found himself fighting in a war on the side of the Arab slavers. But, like nearly everyone else, he would be transformed by meeting Livingstone.
"Into Africa" is an adventure for the ages and for all ages that would make a great reading assignment in high school.