Brilliant American historian Laurence Bergreen turned his attention to Marco Polo for this 2008 non-fiction, historical telling of a certain traveller from the past. We’ve covered Bergreen’s work before with the fascinating Over the Edge of the World (about Ferdinand Magellan’s fraught, disastrous trek around the globe 500 years ago) a while ago, but this would complement your bookshelf just as finely.
It’s about Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, two dudes who lived over 700 years ago. The former is famous for his travelling exploits, which are told in his legendary book The Travels of Marco Polo. The latter followed in the footsteps of Genghis Khan during an era when the Mongols swept across the world to build an astonishing empire. Mr. Polo slotted into this lot as one man with a beard. Glorious!
Marco Polo – From Venice to Xanadu
Between 1271 and 1275, Mr. Polo travelled along the Silk Road to central Asia. Here he reached China and worked his way into favour with the Great Khan by the use of his accounting skills. Over the next 17 years, Polo travelled through the “land of the Mongols” before setting sail for home in 1295. Along the way he called at Sumatra, India, and Persia before plopping back in at Venice.
These days, this is the type of trip any dim-witted, acne ridden student can fund (i.e. through their hard working parents!) and complete. It’s all five star gloriousness and Selfie taking in landmarks and, “Gosh! Wasn’t that odious local woman on 90% below minimum wage awfully rude to me when she didn’t understand my demand for fresh eggs rather than that thing she picked out of that chicken?” Kids today… they don’t know they’re born!*
Anyway, back in 1271 a trip like that was about as dangerous as attempting to, now in 2016, launch yourself to Jupiter and back in a Robin Reliant. For Polo, such an undertaking was fraught with danger. A lot of people still thought the Earth was flat, and most sailors who took to the sea generally died horrifying deaths due to scurvy. This disease may have a hilarious sounding name, but my word you do not want that. Eat an orange a day, kids!
Marco Polo and Kublai Khan
Some scholars attest Polo fabricated large parts (or all) of his tales, but his writings about 13th century Venice, the Asian steppe, and Kublai Khan are remarkable and Bergreen’s account helps to display this. During Polo’s era, many writers did fabricate tales of their travels, such as Prestor John. This man, quite literally, rambled incoherently about fanciful creatures which roamed distant lands, with many gullible sorts believing his gibberish. With Polo, there is no such insanity.
Regardless, this is an absolutely glorious telling of an era which is way in past behind us, but is reconstructed gloriously here to display Marco Polo’s life in full. There’s even a hypothesis mused over whether the traveller became an opium addict – we’ll never know, but Bergreen indicates it would explain some erratic behaviour. This isn’t a book about opium, though, it’s about Marco Polo and Bergreen’s brilliance as a historian. Purchase and enjoy!