Read: The Crystal Desert

Sometimes all it takes is the first sentence of a book to make you want to read it. This book’s first sentence, however, was not quite so inspiring:

“I spent three summers in Antarctica, in places beyond the horizon of most of the rest of my species.” Perhaps this might have captured a reader’s interest back in 1992 when it was published, but not so much these days.

My eyes drifted down the page as I wondered if The Crystal Desert – which I found out about from Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita – were worth picking up.

“I was as lonely as an astronaut walking on the moon. But at other times, during the short, erotic summer along the ocean margins of the continent, Antarctica seemed to be a celebration of everything living, of unchecked DNA in all its procreative frenzy, transmuting sunlight and minerals into life itself, hatching, squabbling, swimming, and soaring on the sea wind.”

Sounds promising enough.

And it was, quite.

David Campbell is a biologist who spent three summers in Antarctica in the 1980s, his last visit spent at a Brazilian research station nicknamed ‘Little Copacabana’, where days were spent in a near-freezing biology lab and nights partying.

“We were scientists who had to come to study more enduring things: fossils and glaciers, the ebb and flow of seasons, wind and albatrosses, metropolises of penguins, and the crowded, unseen Antarctic underwater realm, which brims with life as no other sea on Earth. We were pilgrims in the last new land on Earth.”

Campbell has written a good travelogue, with a biological and historical (I learnt a lot about the history of whaling!) slant. He has a keen eye and a good sense of balance – not too much on the science and the details, a nice blend of  observations of the  natural life in Antarctica and personal anecdotes. It is thoughtful and at the same time, entertaining. Perhaps I haven’t read many books written by scientists before (and I’m not talking about secondary school science textbooks) so I was a bit unsure of what I was getting myself into.

But how can you not like a biologist who writes about the ship taking him to Antarctica in this way:

“She is a clamorous vessel. The hydraulic steering mechanism, located behind my cabin, whines and clinks every few seconds.”

This is my second read for the Antarctica leg of the Reading The World Challenge (challenge page). It made a good contrast to my first read, Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita, which was more about the human life in Antarctica.

Book provided by my library


  1. Sounds intriguing. I really enjoyed Terra Incognita, so I may have to put this one on my list to read later this year. How are your New Zealand, Argentina, and Sri Lanka legs of the Reading the World Challenge going?


    1. You got me there… I kinda forgot about the rest of the legs until recently! I’m about halfway through my Sri Lankan book, Reef, and it’s an only ok read so far. Will have to check my library for the rest of the selections.


      1. I’ve never read any books from Sri Lanka, but you did find a long list which I may have to use soon. And now that I think of it, I have read one of the authors on the list. My roommate in college was a big Arthur C. Clarke fan, and I forgot Clarke moved to Sri Lanka. But the book wasn’t about Sri Lanka, so I don’t think I’ll count it. Hope you get through Reef soon.


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