Originally published by Adam and Charles Black in 1914. Published by Project Gutenberg for Kindle and in other file types. Free.
Reviewed by Veronique Greenwood
If you limit yourself to reading just the ebooks available for free on the internet, as I have been doing lately, you wind up inhabiting the world prior to 1923. American copyright laws are complicated, but books published before that magical year, 90 years prior to this one, are in the public domain. It's about as close to time travel as you can reasonably get.
To really immerse yourself in the era, you can read the travelogues of Sir Frank Fox, a kind of early-twentieth century Bill Bryson. An Australian journalist who spent much of his life reporting for newspapers in London, he wrote books about the natural history, geography, and ethnography of various lands, and there are five of them—on Australia, Bulgaria, England, the Balkan Peninsula, and Switzerland—available at Project Gutenberg for free. For this review, I read Switzerland, published in 1914.
As a rule, one of the risks of inhabiting this pre-1923 world is drowning in a sea of unnecessary words. Today the fashion is to write with extreme clarity, projecting each scene into the reader's mind as if he or she were watching a movie, and to snip out all excess verbiage. Not a hundred years ago—reading Fox is a bit like codebreaking, with sentences that sometimes encompass eleven or twelve clauses and words that aren't used much anymore, like “waggish” and “beneficient.” His very first chapter includes a hilariously lengthy Socratic dialogue rebutting the idea that mountain people are more virtuous and vigorous than lowlanders, owing to some magical quality of the mountain air—not the introduction that a modern writer would use, but curiously charming nevertheless, once you adjust your ear to his style.
It's worth noting, too, that this pre-1923 world as represented by its literature is a pretty Anglocentric one. Fox's readers were British subjects, or former British subjects, so perhaps it's no surprise that he is eager to caricature “the Swiss race” and make his own sweeping generalizations about why they are the way they are, while simultaneously tearing down other sentimental depictions. And the chapter on Swiss prehistory is threaded with regular assertions that human society is on an ever-upward trend, with pathetic (yet noble) nomads at the bottom and the 1914 European at the crest.
But it's an interesting experience, revisiting the literary fashions and the inherited wisdom of a time not so long ago. To the modern reader interested in geography and ethnography, and not afraid to put on a monocle and go along for the ride, Switzerland is fun reading. The prehistory chapter includes a great summary of what was known about the villages-on-stilts that fringed many Swiss lakes in Celtic times. The chapter on local writers includes an anecdote about the time Byron, visiting the fashionable salons along Lake Geneva, attempted to scandalize polite society as he had in Britain, and failed. Apparently the Swiss found him tedious. And the chapter on the Alps, along with a compact treatise on the formation and decay of mountains, includes this note:
“M. Charles Rabot [a geographer and mountaineer] asserts that the glaciers in Argentina are also retreating, and surmises, from data perhaps not so well established, that there has been a general retreat of glaciers during the last half of the nineteenth century throughout Spitzenbergen, Iceland, Cetnral Asia, and Alaska. He suggests that the cause is a present tendency towards equalisation of the earth's temperature. Others more boldly affirm that the Swiss glaciers, as well as other great ice masses existing on the globe, are remnants of the last Ice Age, and are all doomed to disappear as the cycle works round for the full heat of the next Warm Age. But the disappearance, if it is to come, will not come quickly, and the doom of ice-climbing in Switzerland is too remote a threat to disturb the Alpinist.”
That passage falls with quite a different meaning on our ears today, and one of the great pleasures of reading Fox is looking for these harmonies and dissonances, the moments that reveal how much has stayed the same and how much has changed. If that sounds like fun to you, then there's a cache of free ebooks waiting for you on Fox's Gutenberg author page.
Veronique Greenwood is a former staff writer at DISCOVER Magazine. She writes about everything from caffeine chemistry to cold cures to Jelly Belly flavors, and her work has appeared in Scientific American, TIME.com, TheAtlantic.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter here.