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Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin | Originally published 1839 | Penguin Classics | Paperback $16
When HMS Beagle sailed out of Devonport on 27 December 1831, Charles Darwin was twenty-two and setting off on the voyage of a lifetime. His journal, here reprinted in a shortened form, shows a naturalist making patient observations concerning geology, natural history, people, places and events. Volcanoes in the Galapagos, the Gossamer spider of Patagonia and the Australasian coral reefs – all are to be found in these extraordinary writings. The insights made here were to set in motion the intellectual currents that led to the theory of evolution, and the most controversial book of the Victorian age: The Origin of Species.
In a word: FASCINATING.
I’m so, so glad that I put this title on my Classics Club list — and I’m so, so glad that I just happened to find a dusty copy languishing at a local used bookshop for only $3!
A couple of minor but relevant pieces of information: I have a BS in Biology and am the child of a scientist and am employed at a science-focused academic library. I also do not usually get on well with Victorian literature.
In this case, my enthusiasm for the subject matter (and the youthful author’s own clear enthusiasm) won out over my difficulties with the Victorian-ness of the writing.
Darwin suffered from terrible seasickness for much of the voyage, so he spent as much time travelling by land as he could possibly justify. I feel bad for the guy, but his extended explorations through various countries is what allowed him to produce this book and its controversial heir.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows with this book, of course. Young Charlie subscribed to some of the rather paternalistic/racist views of typical imperialist Englishmen of the time, and his opinions on the foreign cultures he encounters do awkwardly (for the modern reader) reflect that. Besides that, he does tend to get a little too excited about some topics that no one else besides a fellow topic-specific geek would care about. Even I couldn’t be bothered with pages of descriptions of flatworms or geological strata. You have to be OK with skimming past this kind of stuff if you want to make it through the whole book.
That said, there are some real jewels to be found. For instance, there was the time when good ol’ Charlie managed to lasso himself while some gauchos tried to teach him how to fend for himself. And how about his attempts to ride the Galápagos tortoises like an an overgrown, overenthusiastic boy?
I like to imagine that if blogs had existed in the early 1800’s, Darwin would have been typing IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE THIS IS SO COOL, YOU GUYS and taking selfies with any animal/person who’d stand still long enough.
Overall, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the history of biological/ecological sciences or 19th century English history. And hey — definitely check out the links below. A lot of Darwin’s journals, letters, etc. are freely available online and, again, there are some real gems floating around out there.
Have you read this book, or other books by/about Darwin? Did you find any particular part of his journey especially fascinating?
- Darwin Online, incl. Darwin’s papers and the Beagle library
- American Museum of Natural History “Darwin” exhibit
- The HMS Beagle Project
- Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle infographic from the Cambridge Library Collection
Publication information: Darwin, Charles. Voyage of the Beagle. New York: Penguin, 1989. Print.
Source: Used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.