August 21, 2007
Book Review: Explorer's House by Robert M. Poole
Title: Explorer's House: National Geographic and the World it Made
Author: Robert M. Poole
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Pub. Date: January 2006 (paperback edition)
Format: Paperback, 368pp
Publisher: Viking Penguin
Personal Rating: 4/5
Inventors, geography, and nepotism all find their way into the pages of Robert M. Poole’s history of National Geographic entitled Explorer’s House: National Geographic and the World It Made.
Beginning with Gardiner Hubbard and Alexander Graham Bell (best known for inventing the telephone) Explorer’s House tells the story of a great institution founded in 1888, the National Geographic Society, and its progeny, National Geographic magazine.
Poole has expertly portrayed the story of one of the world’s most successful magazines from its humble origins in a small office in Washington, D.C. to the billion-dollar a year company it has grown to be. He describes how a little gathering of men who shared and interest in geography that they wanted to promulgate hired a young man by name of Gilbert Grosvenor to be editor and manger of the little journal they produced for their members. Grosvenor went on to make the magazine the chief end of the society, using innovative publishing, marketing, and photography techniques to draw in several million readers today.
Poole’s writing style reflects the nature of his long association with the magazine. Each chapter is an article itself and could easily have found printing in any major newspaper. Poole explores the relationship of the Bell and Grosvenor family to National Geographic. It was this family and their talent and psychological make-ups that made the magazine successful and so a study of them and their correspondence gives the reader a best sense of the germination and growth of the magazine. Poole had unprecedented access to former employees, the National Geographic archives, and the Grosvenor and Bell archives, allowing him to tell the story as no one else has.
Many other characters come into the history as well. Maynard Owen Williams, first foreign correspondent; Robert Peary, arctic explorer; and Jacques Costeau, deep sea explorer, and beneficiary of one of National Geographic’s research grants; all play significant roles in the story of National Geographic. There is the story of opening Tutankhamen’s tomb, the first American climb of Everest, the conquest of the North Pole, and Jane Goodall’s research into primate behavior; all of which would not have been possible without the help of National Geographic and its society.
Ultimately, the book is excellent, although there are some flaws. Poole’s history some time skips backward and forward in time to often, making the reader very dependent on the dates mentioned. This lack of straightforward history is not extremely detrimental to the history, but the reader would be wise to pay attention to all dates mentioned. Poole also spends little time in the more recent past. The book was published in 2004 (begun in 2001) and glosses over a great deal of the 1990s and misses much of the early turn of the century.
However, for anyone in publishing, who has enjoyed National Geographic in the past, or historians of Alexander Graham Bell and his family, Explorer's House is both a helpful resource and fascinating story. Poole has shown how National Geographic’s devotion to geography, adventure, exploration, and learning has shaped American culture profoundly.