Good idea, good writing, but somehow lost me halfway on its way around the globe.
Not that any particular idea is needed to set out and explore the world, but, as far as ideas go, circumventing the planet following the 60th northern parallel sounded interesting. Passing through Shetland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Saint Petersburg, Finland, Sweden and Norway would open up comparisons of how different societies deal with isolation, remoteness, harsh climate and the threatening change to the latter.
Malachy Tallack is best at describing landscape. If you want to read about different shades of moss, shapes of stones and the flight of pelicans, this is your book. Sadly, I am more interested in sociocultural concepts and maybe the odd adventure happening on the road.
But from his writing, I gained the impression that Tallack wasn’t the kind of guy to whom adventures would happen. He definitely wouldn’t seek them out. There is too much (and too-often repeated) rambling about his father’s death and other introspective trains of thought, which are really of no particular interest. Almost everybody’s parents die one day, so I failed to see the big drama.
Lost in his thoughts, Tallack was often walking around alone and I felt that in most locations, there were not enough locals whom he met. Even when he meets up with a friend in Alaska, he uses the time to reminisce about their friendship, which again couldn’t interest me less.
As to sociocultural concepts, Tallack is almost exclusively focused on two ideas: home (which he seems to understand as a romanticized feeling for the place where one was accidentally born or grew up) and land ownership (which he is against). His praise of indigenous societies for not having private or any title to land strikes me as superficial, if not naive, for how could societies without a legal system even have or enforce title, except with violence? Also, private property is not all negative. Lack of it makes it much harder to stand up to the group, to be an individual, to be different, for fear of being ostracized and losing participatory rights in the group’s land.
I gave up reading 60 Degrees North after the chapter on Siberia, or ostensibly on Siberia, I should say. It seems that Tallack didn’t even travel through Siberia, although it makes up the largest part of the landmass along the 60th parallel. He reminisces about a former visit to Kamchatka (which again makes him think about home in Shetland, as any other place has done so far) and then adds some Gulag history, apparently taken from books or Wikipedia. Well, there would actually be memorial sites and museums to be visited, former prisoners to be spoken to, researchers to be interviewed, court documents to be studied.
I felt cheated after this chapter and quit. The fear that I would miss anything interesting in the second half of the book was non-existent.
One reason for reading this book was that I had previously had the idea of circumventing the world along the 49th northern parallel, because this is where my hometown in Germany is located (roughly) and because I like the moderate climate that you get up/down there, depending on your geographical point of view, for most of the year. Also, such a trip would traverse interesting places from Paris to Stalingrad, Karlsruhe to Kazakhstan, Ukraine to Sakhalin and then follow the US-Canadian border. If I ever do that, there will be less about dead parents, the color of the water and Shetland, and more about history, society and the random strangers who invite me into their homes, I hope.