Book Review: Kon-Tiki
I don’t know about you, but for the last couple of weeks I have been eagerly following the Teens Can Write, Too blog chain about the importance of book covers. Some posts in the chain were terrific; others slightly less so. In general, however, they have made me fairly proud to be a teenager – and they have also caused me to consider the all-important role of book covers. I don’t think much about book covers, so without being prompted otherwise I probably would have said that I hold to the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover”. But that would not be true: I often may not realise it, but the fact that I was not jumping up and down to read Kon-Tiki (not that I’m very excitable at the best of times…) attests to the fact that covers do influence me. The title certainly didn’t help: I had no clue what (or who) a Kon-Tiki was. But even besides the title, the physique of the copy wasn’t endearing: it was a fairly cheap-looking book, and while the cover art was passable, it wasn’t fantastic. In the centre of the book, in sharp contrast to the other beige coloured pages, was a section of stark-white, cheap-looking photo-copy paper (it contained photos, reviews, and notes). To top it all off, under the title and the author’s name (Thor Heyerdahl) – which were, incidentally, in a boring font – was “Complete and Unabridged” and “Includes detailed explanatory notes, an overview of key themes, and more”. Not that I like abridged books – or dislike explanatory notes – but often books with such advertisements are difficult, boring classics (admittedly I have enjoyed plenty of classics – like Oliver Twist and especially Pride and Prejudice).
But I changed my mind about Kon-Tiki, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this review (people say it’s fun to write bad reviews, but I’ve never tried it). In fact, I was hooked by the foreword. This is kind of strange, because the foreword was about Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that Polynesians came from South America, not from South-East Asia or any other of the numerous countries that have been suggested as their origin. This might make me sound nerdy (not that I’d be insulted), but it’s true. Even though I know very little about Polynesians, much less their origin, the fact that strongly held beliefs about them were being proven wrong by a solitary young Norwegian was compelling. Thor Heyerdahl had so much interesting evidence from so many areas to back up his claim, but nobody would even read his manuscript. The fact that he took evidence from lots of areas, in fact, was part of the problem: scientists were very specialised and they did not meddle in the fields of other scientists. In the words of the author “…to solve the problems of the Pacific without throwing light on them from all sides was, it seemed to me, like doing a puzzle and only using the pieces of one colo[u]r.” But that’s exactly what everyone else tried to do.
I got so caught up in Heyerdahl’s theory, to tell the truth, that I was almost disappointed when he finished with the background and started to get into the story. This was foolishness of course: to read 230 pages of theory, even a theory like Heyerdahl’s, would have to be pretty boring. And the story turned out to be quite an adventure! A major objection that people voiced in response to Heyerdahl’s theory (or what little of his theory they suffered to hear) was how the Polynesians got there. Heyerdahl claimed that they sailed on balsa-wood rafts: everybody laughed at this, but he determined to prove it. A Norwegian visiting America, with very little money, no influence, and no one to read his theory, he decided that he would build a raft and sail across the Pacific himself. He found partners and companions for his journey; he found sponsors; he was assisted by ambassadors and diplomats; he was given provisions and accessories by the army; he was helped vastly by Peruvians to build his raft… all in all he was a very bold and fortunate guy. And then he and his five companions were on their way across the mighty Pacific in a balsa-wood raft – which all the world predicted would sink.
At this point, I determined, the story had the potential to become either very dull or very exciting – and of course by rights Heyerdahl would soon be very dead (but of course he couldn’t die, he was the author). It turned out, that in the short term at least, the raft was doing quite well: so the story should, at that point, have become very boring. But although I am sure it was better to experience it than to read about it, there was something fantastic about reading the true story of 20th century men sailing on a prehistoric raft under the stars.
I confess that I often think of the Pacific Ocean as a body of water (shock! horror!). But I soon realised that it is much more than that – it is a rich ecosystem: you could call it a marine rain-forest. I once read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I remember getting quite bored as I read the long lists of creatures that they observed from the Nautilus. The lists of species observed from the Kon-Tiki are similar (the Kon-Tiki was the name of their raft, named after the legendary Tiki who first sailed for Polynesia), but I found them much more entertaining. Perhaps because they were real fantastic creatures encountered by real people – not merely the figments of Jules Verne’s imagination.
So in general, while the publishers really should have come up with a better cover for it, Kon-Tiki was quite a good book (but perhaps it isn’t “proper” for “classics” to have interesting covers). It is true that it wasn’t the sort of book I could read all in a day: some books I can just read and read, with others I need to be more temperate; but that isn’t a great indicator of quality (I love The Lord of the Rings but I can’t read heaps of it at once; I’m not a huge fan of Enid Blyton, but when I was younger I read her books in big chunks). I would probably rate Kon-Tiki 4/5, but out of 10, probably 7. So if you like anthropology, you should read this book. If you like maritime adventures, you should read this book. If you like anthropology, and you like maritime adventures: score!