One-Minute Book Reviews

December 15, 2008

Laurence Bergreen’s ‘Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: Biography,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm
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The latest in an occasional series of posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. By Laurence Bergreen. Vintage, 432 pp., $16.95, paperback.

What it is: A biography the 13th-century Venetian explorer who became the world’s first adventure traveler. Marco Polo was named one of the Top 10 Biographies of the year by the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine.

How much I read: About 75 pages (the first and last chapters and parts of others).

Why I stopped reading: Marco had too much competition from holiday parties. I liked the book a lot and would probably have finished it if I’d started it in June.

Best line in what I read: “In disgrace, Andrea Dandolo lashed himself to his flagship’s mast and beat his head against it until he died of a fractured skull, thus depriving the Genoese of the satisfaction of executing him.” Dandolo led a Venetian fleet of 96 ships defeated by the Genoese in the Battle of Curzola. Marco Polo has many lines as memorable as this one.

Worst line in what I read: “ … although he was done with his book, it was not done with him.” Bergreen means “finished.”

Comments: A strange thing happened as I was thinking about the best books I’d read in 2008: I realized that none was a new biography when, in a typical year, I read several or more. So I picked up Marco Polo, an acclaimed 2007 biography that recently came out in paperback. A blurb from Simon Winchester calls Bergreen “America’s liveliest biographer,” and to judge by what I read, he’s at least one of the liveliest.

Bergreen has a flair for storytelling that includes an ability to evoke people and places in a few lines. He can also sum up broad historical forces lucidly. Here’s the first paragraph of his brief explanation of the cause of the Crusades:

“The Crusades began with a simple goal: to permit Christians to continue to make pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulcher, the tomb in Jerusalem in which the body of the crucified Jesus was believed to be laid to rest. Christians had been visiting this holiest of Christian shrines at least since the eighth century AD. Matters changed dramatically in 1009 when Hakim, the Fatimid caliph – that is, the Muslim ruler – of Cairo, called for the Holy Sepulcher’s destruction. Afterward, unlucky Christians and Jews who found themselves in Jerusalem were likely to be persecuted, and the city’s Christian quarter was surrounded by a forbidding wall that controlled access. Within five years, thousands of churches had been burned or ransacked.”

Try to rewrite that paragraph and say as much in fewer words, and you’ll see how good Bergreen is. Would that all of our history professors had been so concise!

Recommendation? Marco Polo is much longer than Longitude but may appeal to its fans. Like Dava Sobel’s bestseller, Bergreen’s book tells well-written story that involves the history of exploration.

Read an excerpt and more at

About the author: Bergreen also wrote Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, and other books.

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