August’s adventure was Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, and an adventure it was not. Granted, the book was published in the 1860s, and at that time what was considered “thrilling” had a pretty low bar, but this was downright boring. I feel sort of silly because I was expecting something more like the classic film adaptation, which is incredibly different. The characters change nationality and grow drastically in number, a rival team of explorers threatens the heroes of the story, and there are many more life or death situations and outrageous discoveries. Compared to the film, Jules Verne’s adventurous trek reads like the minutes to a board meeting at a financial firm.
Journey to the Center of the Earth features young geologist Axel who follows his crazy uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, into an Icelandic volcano in order to chase after a subterranean path to the center of the Earth. His uncle’s plan is terrible and completely developed from old, half-baked theories and ancient manuscripts that offer little more than riddles for him to follow. The manuscript, Heimskringla written by Snorri Sturluson, is an actual Icelandic saga written at some point in the 12th or 13th century. It really exists; a little detail I found very cool. Axel decodes a (fictional) runic note within the manuscript that offers directions to finding a path to the center of the earth through the Snaefell volcano. Axel keeps the message to himself, sure his uncle would force him to travel to the center of the earth with him.
Unfortunately his uncle becomes so distraught at not being able to decipher the message that he locks everyone in the house while he works tirelessly at breaking the code. Unable to take the hunger any longer, Axel reveals the answer to his uncle. Lidenbrock’s enthusiasm explodes and he starts making plans to journey to the center of the earth immediately. Axel finds his uncle to be disregarding practicalities, and, while Lidenbrock is apparently a genius, Axel has no faith in the mission. And rightly so. His uncle rushes through preparations, makes hasty decisions based on unsubstantiated information, and acts like a spoiled child the second things don’t go according to his plan.
Regardless of his objections, Axel is in fact dragged away from his lovely fiancé Grauben (who is supportive of the mission herself, surprisingly) to Iceland with his uncle. They find a capable and stoic guide named Hans and begin their decent. Already, the book has deviated greatly from the film (and I put them in that order because I saw the film first). A woman (not Grauben) travels with them in the film, and in my opinion it is the greatest weakness of the book that no woman accompanies them on the journey. This is clearly because women did not do such things at the time, but the group dynamic of the explorers really suffers.
A great example of how going on any kind of trip with Professor Lidenbrock is probably both the best and worst thing you could ever do is that he insists on only bringing gin on their journey. No water, no coffee, just gin. As a gin lover, I feel pretty good about this decision. But as a living human who requires hydration to survive, I realize how this is not a very smart idea. Lidenbrock assumed (as he did many other things) that there would be underground springs that would contain drinkable water. This assumption nearly gets them killed.
While the team does encounter some amazing situations, like a cavern full of gems, an underground sea packed with dinosaurs and massive sea creatures, and giant, prehistoric humans, they also are the clumsiest and most boring characters I’ve ever encountered in an adventure novel. Axel is horribly unobservant and spineless, and Lidenbrock continually makes emotional decisions instead of rational ones. They continually refer to Lidenbrock as a savant, which I’m sure he is, but I kept wanting to replace it with “eccentric.” In fact, I’m fairly certain the man would be diagnosed with severe Asperger syndrome today. I was so frustrated with both Lidenbrock and Axel throughout the entire book.
Eventually, their wanderings and fumbling around gets them a one-way ticket up the crater of another volcano, and the travelers are spit out on an island in Italy. Even though they didn’t quite achieve their goal, Lidenbrock goes on to receive great international acclaim for his journey and Axel finally gets to marry Grauben. The end.
I honestly had a hard time staying focused on this book. The best part was that Tim Curry narrated the audiobook I got from Audible, but even his lovely voice couldn’t excite me. I do think that the concepts and crazy notions in Journey to the Center of the Earth were thrilling and exciting to readers when it was published, but after 150 years I don’t think it holds up.
This was surprisingly a disappointing Shameful Book Club read. I wish I enjoyed it more, but I just could not get into it. If you’ve read this Jules Verne classic, please let me know what you think. Also, for your further entertainment, check out this Wired article about a man who truly believed he could travel down to the center of the Earth in the early 19th century! While he was mostly laughed at by politicians and the public, his personal fervor helped changed the attitude toward exploration in America and opened up a new era of discovery for others.
For September I will finally be reading the modern classic I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I recently said, nay exclaimed, that I had read this on Facebook. Worse, I said this falsity to two very well read and lovely women whom I greatly respect. I LIIEEEDD!! But not entirely. I’ve actually read more than half of this book years and years ago, but now I’m committing to finishing the beloved novel from cover to cover this coming month. Let’s hope I have time with all my classes and crazy work schedule. How many I Capture the Castle fans are out there?