This being Explorers of the Nilemy first time writing about a nonfiction book, it got me thinking about writing about nonfiction versus fiction. With nonfiction, on some level you’re dealing with facts. A large part of what makes a nonfiction book worth reading is the veracity of those facts and the strength of the assertions the author makes from said facts. And then, even if a book is acclaimed at the time of its publication, over the years new sources are often uncovered, leading to fresh insights and debunking of truths.

Earlier this year an article appeared in the New York Times on releasing old nonfiction books. The particular book in question was Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case, written by A.M. Rosenthal in 1964. Rosenthal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote the book in the few months following Kitty Genovese’s murder and it was published immediately. In the years since there’s been evidence uncovered that disputes some of the claims or interpretations of events made by Rosenthal. Thirty-Eight Witnesses is still a seminal piece of investigative journalism, and as such it was recently re-released digitally but without any introduction placing it in the context of current facts. It’s a reminder of how fluid ‘facts’ can be, especially when it comes to journalism of current events.

How much should a reader question the facts when reading a nonfiction book? To begin, the reputation of an author is so much more important for nonfiction compared to fiction. With fiction you can take a chance on an unknown, you’ll know straight away if it’s terrible. With nonfiction, terrible can be harder to verify, it’s more insidious, it’s not simply about the quality of the writing, or whether they can tell a good story. I figure, if the book’s written by someone who’s respected in their field, someone who knows their stuff, then I can’t go too wrong. That’s why I’ve given Gavin Menzies’ (known for his controversial history book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World) books a miss.

Tim Jeal knows his stuff when it comes to nineteenth century explorers. He’s known for his well-regarded biographies of famous explorers David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. His style is scholarly with a hint of revisionist tendencies. His biography of Stanley, in particular, paints the explorer in a far more flattering light than any previous works on him. In Explorers of the Nile, based on new research, Jeal similarly revises the history of nineteenth century exploration of Africa.

Jeal’s book details the final search to discover one of the planet’s last remaining geographical secrets – the source of the White Nile. Starting in 1856 several of the world’s most famed explorers (Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, Florence and Samuel Baker, James Grant, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley) set out for Africa to finally put the mystery to rest. The subject matter is inherently exciting. They’re attacked by African tribes, endure grotesque injuries and illnesses (flesh-eating ulcers, malaria), live at the courts of capricious African rulers, trek through hazardous jungle, and are double-crossed by their own men. It’s gripping stuff, excellently told.

History is all about interpretation and opinion. Take the story of sometime-duo Burton and Speke for instance. Jeal is obviously fond of Speke, favouring him over the showier Burton, even writing that he thinks Speke’s biographers have given him short shrift. Jeal has uncovered previously unused letters and documents, shedding light on the vitriol between Burton and Speke, thereby restoring Speke’s good name, and finally giving him the credit he deserved for helping find the White Nile’s source.

Jeal has a great knack for taking the facts and quotes and explaining them in a captivating manner. He explains not only his own opinion, but other historians’ interpretations so that you get the whole picture. Jeal’s voice is balanced but you always know what his opinion is and why he’s probably right. It’s never just dry facts, Jeal tells a story. He shows great compassion for his subjects. Jeal doesn’t excuse or gloss over their flaws (of which they had many) but he always astutely elucidates the reasons for their actions.

The story doesn’t end with the discovery of the source of the Nile. Jeal follows through, detailing the consequences the explorers’ discoveries had for Africa – the race to colonise (the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’) in order to plunder Africa’s resources, open it up to free trade, convert its people to Christianity, and generally civilise. Not knowing much about African history I found Jeal’s commentary on the way borders were drawn up by the European governments around the Sudan and Uganda particularly thought-provoking. The region was carved up without any thought for the racial and cultural complexity of the area, causing warfare and bloodshed a century later.

As I was reading Explorers of the Nile it dawned on me that knowledge of geography is something I take for granted. We live in a time where plane travel is the norm and tourists (not explorers) trek across the globe but at some point people had to take risks in order to map the world. Why was the source of the Nile so alluring? It seems silly at first that people would risk their lives for it. The Africans that Burton, Speke and the others met on their journeys were often incredulous as to the usefulness of finding the source of the Nile. What was the purpose? But I started to appreciate the importance. At least some, if not all, did it for the glory and the adventure. And there were often dire consequences for the people of the lands being explored. But if not for that kind of tenacious curiosity about geography so much that’s amazing about the world might never have been discovered.