The list of places Nancy Campbell covers in researching The Library of Ice was enough to make me keen to read it. Upernavik Museum in Greenland, Vatnajökull in Iceland, Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam…
Campbell is an artist, writer and poet, and The Library of Ice could be considered travel writing, cultural history, nature writing, or memoir. It’s not necessary to pick these bits apart: the book as a whole works well as a meditation on ice. She is an engaging guide, and her curiosity leads to adventures in the archives and outside.
The book is full of intriguing and pleasing facts and stories. I was pleased to learn of the origins of Torvill and Dean’s immortal Bolero skating performance, and of Robert Boyle’s attempts to research the phenomenon of cold and his irritation at the difficulty of his experiments.
Despite my longstanding Antarctic obsession, I did not know that George Murray Levick of the Scott expedition in 1912 was so horrified at what he found to be the ‘hooligan’ and ‘depraved’ behaviour of the penguins that he censored his scientific reporting on the Adélies. In the Natural History Museum archive survives a copy of a report Levick wrote for colleagues, limited in circulation and with a note on the front saying: ‘The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin, not for publication’.
Campbell’s awareness of damage from climate change informs much of the book, and her accounts of traditional knowledge of ice reminded me of some of the testimony from Mary Robinson’s excellent book Climate Justice.
If you enjoy good books about cold places, such as Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita or The Magnetic North, this will be a chilly pleasure.