If you are interested in the Arctic or Antarctic, or just cold places in general, this selection of 20 books will be a good reading resource. I have read many of them myself after spending a lot of time in the Arctic and can highly recommend them.
They are in no particular order of preference and I have split them evenly between the Arctic and Antarctic.
Get ready for the cold…
1. Arctic Dreams
Barry Lopez’s National Book Award-winning classic study of the Far North is widely considered his masterpiece.
Lopez offers a thorough examination of this obscure world-its terrain, its wildlife, its history of Eskimo natives and intrepid explorers who have arrived on their icy shores. But what turns this marvelous work of natural history into a breathtaking study of profound originality is his unique meditation on how the landscape can shape our imagination, desires, and dreams. Its prose as hauntingly pure as the land it describes, Arctic Dreams is nothing less than an indelible classic of modern literature.
2. In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
On July 8, 1879, Captain George Washington De Long and his team of thirty-two men set sail from San Francisco on the USS Jeanette.
Heading deep into uncharted Arctic waters, they carriedthe aspirations of a young country burning to be the first nation to reach the North Pole. Two years into the harrowing voyage, the Jeannette’shull was breached by an impassable stretch of pack ice, forcing the crew to abandon ship amid torrents of rushing of water. Hours later, the ship had sunk below the surface, marooning the men a thousand miles north of Siberia, where they faced a terrifying march with minimal supplies across the endless ice pack.
Enduring everything from snow blindness and polar bears to ferocious storms and labyrinths of ice, the crew battled madness and starvation as they struggled desperately to survive. With thrilling twists and turns, In The Kingdom of Ice is a spellbinding tale of heroism and determination in the most brutal place on Earth.
3. The North Water
Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship’s medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage.
In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring?
With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, Ian McGuire’s The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions.
4. Dark Matter
“Are you happy with your life?”
Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious.
Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits.
Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”
In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor, but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable. Something impossible.
Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.
Dark Matter is a brilliantly plotted tale that is at once sweeping and intimate, mind-bendingly strange and profoundly human—a relentlessly surprising science-fiction thriller about choices, paths not taken, and how far we’ll go to claim the lives we dream of.
5. The Terror
The bestselling author of Ilium and Olympos transforms the true story of a legendary Arctic expedition into a thriller worthy of Stephen King or Patrick O’Brian.
Their captain’s insane vision of a Northwest Passage has kept the crewmen of The Terror trapped in Arctic ice for two years without a thaw. But the real threat to their survival isn’t the ever-shifting landscape of white, the provisions that have turned to poison before they open them, or the ship slowly buckling in the grip of the frozen ocean.
The real threat is whatever is out in the frigid darkness, stalking their ship, snatching one seaman at a time or whole crews, leaving bodies mangled horribly or missing forever. Captain Crozier takes over the expedition after the creature kills its original leader, Sir John Franklin.
Drawing equally on his own strengths as a seaman and the mystical beliefs of the Eskimo woman he’s rescued, Crozier sets a course on foot out of the Arctic and away from the insatiable beast. But every day the dwindling crew becomes more deranged and mutinous, until Crozier begins to fear there is no escape from an ever-more-inconceivable nightmare.
6. Deception Point
When a new NASA satellite spots evidence of an astonishingly rare object buried deep in the Arctic ice, the floundering space agency proclaims a much-needed victory…a victory that has profound implications for U.S. space policy and the impending presidential election. With the Oval Office in the balance, the President dispatches White House Intelligence analyst Rachel Sexton to the Milne Ice Shelf to verify the authenticity of the find. Accompanied by a team of experts, including the charismatic academic Michael Tolland, Rachel uncovers the unthinkable: evidence of scientific trickery — a bold deception that threatens to plunge the world into controversy.
But before Rachel can contact the President, she and Michael are attacked by a deadly team of assassins controlled by a mysterious power broker who will stop at nothing to hide the truth. Fleeing for their lives in an environment as desolate as it is lethal, their only hope for survival is to find out who is behind this masterful ploy. The truth, they will learn, is the most shocking deception of all.
7. In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic
In 1912, six months after Robert Falcon Scott and four of his men came to grief in Antarctica, a thirty-two-year-old Russian navigator named Valerian Albanov embarked on an expedition that would prove even more disastrous. In search of new Arctic hunting grounds, Albanov’s ship, the Saint Anna, was frozen fast in the pack ice of the treacherous Kara Sea-a misfortune grievously compounded by an incompetent commander, the absence of crucial nautical charts, insufficient fuel, and inadequate provisions that left the crew weak and debilitated by scurvy.
For nearly a year and a half, the twenty-five men and one woman aboard the Saint Anna endured terrible hardships and danger as the icebound ship drifted helplessly north. Convinced that the Saint Anna would never free herself from the ice, Albanov and thirteen crewmen left the ship in January 1914, hauling makeshift sledges and kayaks behind them across the frozen sea, hoping to reach the distant coast of Franz Josef Land. With only a shockingly inaccurate map to guide him, Albanov led his men on a 235-mile journey of continuous peril, enduring blizzards, disintegrating ice floes, attacks by polar bears and walrus, starvation, sickness, snowblindness, and mutiny. That any of the team survived is a wonder. That Albanov kept a diary of his ninety-day ordeal-a story that Jon Krakauer calls an “astounding, utterly compelling book,” and David Roberts calls “as lean and taut as a good thriller”-is nearly miraculous.
The arctic night is endless. The fear is numbing. Screams freeze in the throat. Death arrives in shades of white. And cold-blooded murder seems right at home.
Conducting a strange and urgent experiment on the Arctic icefield, a team of scientists has planted sixty powerful explosive charges that will detonate at midnight. Before they can withdraw to the safety of their base camp, a shattering tidal wave breaks loose the ice on which they are working. Now they are hopelessly marooned on an iceberg during a violent winter storm. The bombs beneath them are buried irretrievably deep . . . and ticking. And they discover that one of them is an assassin with a mission of his own.
9. Never Cry Wolf
More than a half-century ago the naturalist Farley Mowat was sent to investigate why wolves were killing arctic caribou. Mowat’s account of the summer he lived in the frozen tundra alone — studying the wolf population and developing a deep affection for the wolves (who were of no threat to caribou or man) — is today celebrated as a classic of nature writing, at once a tale of remarkable adventures and indelible record of myths and magic of wolves.
10. The Voyage of the Narwhal
Capturing a crucial moment in the history of exploration—the mid-nineteenth century romance with the Arctic—Andrea Barrett’s compelling novel tells the story of a fateful expedition. Through the eyes of the ship’s scholar-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells, we encounter the Narwhal‘s crew, its commander, and the far-north culture of the Esquimaux. In counterpoint, we meet the women left behind in Philadelphia, explorers only in imagination. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and mystery, finally discovering what they had not sought, the secrets of their own hearts.
1. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
The astonishing saga of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s survival for over a year on the ice-bound Antarctic seas, as Time magazine put it, “defined heroism.” Alfred Lansing’s scrupulously researched and brilliantly narrated book — with over 200,000 copies sold — has long been acknowledged as the definitive account of the Endurance’s fateful trip. To write their authoritative story, Lansing consulted with ten of the surviving members and gained access to diaries and personal accounts by eight others. The resulting book has all the immediacy of a first-hand account, expanded with maps and illustrations especially for this edition.
2. Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration
On January 17, 1913, alone and near starvation, Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, was hauling a sledge to get back to base camp. The dogs were gone. Now Mawson himself plunged through a snow bridge, dangling over an abyss by the sledge harness. A line of poetry gave him the will to haul himself back to the surface.
Mawson was sometimes reduced to crawling, and one night he discovered that the soles of his feet had completely detached from the flesh beneath. On February 8, when he staggered back to base, his features unrecognizably skeletal, the first teammate to reach him blurted out, “Which one are you?”
This thrilling and almost unbelievable account establishes Mawson in his rightful place as one of the greatest polar explorers and expedition leaders. It is illustrated by a trove of Frank Hurley’s famous Antarctic photographs, many never before published in the United States.
3. The Worst Journey in the World
The Worst Journey in the World recounts Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest member of Scott’s team and one of three men to make and survive the notorious Winter Journey, draws on his firsthand experiences as well as the diaries of his compatriots to create a stirring and detailed account of Scott’s legendary expedition. Cherry himself would be among the search party that discovered the corpses of Scott and his men, who had long since perished from starvation and brutal cold. It is through Cherry’s insightful narrative and keen descriptions that Scott and the other members of the expedition are fully memorialized.
4. Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole
During the winter of 1999, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, the only physician on a staff of forty-one people, discovered a lump in her breast. Consulting via satellite e-mail with doctors in the United States, she was forced to perform a biopsy and treat herself with chemotherapy in order to ensure that she could survive until conditions permitted her rescue. She was eventually rescued by the Air National Guard. Dr. Jerri Nielsens story of her transforming experiences is a thrilling adventure and moving drama.
5. Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written
Mawson’s Will is the dramatic story of what Sir Edmund Hillary calls “the most outstanding solo journey ever recorded in Antarctic history.” For weeks in Antarctica, Douglas Mawson faced some of the most daunting conditions ever known to man: blistering wind, snow, and cold; loss of his companion, his dogs and supplies, the skin on his hands and the soles of his feet; thirst, starvation, disease, snowblindness – and he survived.
Sir Douglas Mawson is remembered as the young Australian who would not go to the South Pole with Robert Scott in 1911, choosing instead to lead his own expedition on the less glamorous mission of charting nearly 1,500 miles of Antarctic coastline and claiming its resources for the British Crown. His party of three set out through the mountains across glaciers in 60-mile-per-hour winds. Six weeks and 320 miles out, one man fell into a crevasse, along with the tent, most of the equipment, all of the dogs’ food, and all except a week’s supply of the men’s provisions.
Mawson’s Will is the unforgettable story of one man’s ingenious practicality and unbreakable spirit and how he continued his meticulous scientific observations even in the face of death. When the expedition was over, Mawson had added more territory to the Antarctic map than anyone else of his time. Thanks to Bickel’s moving account, Mawson can be remembered for the vision and dedication that make him one of the world’s great explorers.
6. Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure
When Admiral Richard E. Byrd set out on his second Antarctic expedition in 1934, he was already an international hero for having piloted the first flights over the North and South Poles. His plan for this latest adventure was to spend six months alone near the bottom of the world, gathering weather data and indulging his desire “to taste peace and quiet long enough to know how good they really are.” But early on things went terribly wrong. Isolated in the pervasive polar night with no hope of release until spring, Byrd began suffering inexplicable symptoms of mental and physical illness. By the time he discovered that carbon monoxide from a defective stovepipe was poisoning him, Byrd was already engaged in a monumental struggle to save his life and preserve his sanity.
7. An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor
The story of the remarkable Tom Crean who ran away to sea aged 15 and played a memorable role in Antarctic exploration. He spent more time in the unexplored Antarctic than Scott or Shackleton, and outlived both. Among the last to see Scott alive, Crean was in the search party that found the frozen body. An unforgettable story of triumph over unparalleled hardship and deprivation.
8. Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent
There have been many books about Antarctica in the past, but all have focused on only one aspect of the continent – its science, its wildlife, the heroic age of exploration, personal experiences or the sheer awesome beauty of the landscape, for example – but none has managed to capture whole story, till now. Gabrielle Walker, author, consultant to New Scientist and regular broadcaster with the BBC has written a book unlike any that has ever been written about the continent.
Antarctica weaves all the significant threads into an intricate tapestry, made up of science, natural history, poetry, epic history, what it feels like to be there and why it draws so many different kinds of people back there again and again. It is only when all the parts come together that the underlying truths of the continent emerge. Antarctica is the most alien place on Earth, the only part of our planet where humans could never survive unaided. It is truly like walking on another planet. And yet, in its silence, its agelessness and its mysteries lie the secrets of our past, and of our future.
9. The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the South Pole was the most coveted prize in the fiercely nationalistic modern age of exploration. In the brilliant dual biography, the award-winning writer Roland Huntford re-examines every detail of the great race to the South Pole between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen. Scott, who dies along with four of his men only eleven miles from his next cache of supplies, became Britain’s beloved failure, while Amundsen, who not only beat Scott to the Pole but returned alive, was largely forgotten. This account of their race is a gripping, highly readable history that captures the driving ambitions of the era and the complex, often deeply flawed men who were charged with carrying them out.
10. Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica
When Johnson went to work for the U.S. Antarctic Program (devoted to scientific research and education in support of the national interest in the Antarctic), he figured he’d find adventure, beauty, penguins and lofty-minded scientists. Instead, he found boredom, alcohol and bureaucracy. As a dishwasher and garbage man at McMurdo Station, Johnson quickly shed his illusions about Antarctica. Since he and his co-workers seldom ventured beyond the station’s grim, functional buildings, they spent most of their time finding ways to entertain themselves, drinking beer, bowling and making home movies.
The dormlike atmosphere, complete with sexual hijinks and obscene costume parties, sometimes made life there feel like “a cheap knock-off of some original meaty experience.” What dangers there were existed mostly in the psychological realm; most people who were there through the winter developed the “Antarctica stare,” an unnerving tendency to forget what they were saying mid-sentence and gaze dumbly at the station walls. And if the cold and isolation didn’t drive one crazy, the petty hatreds and mindless red tape might. Though occasionally rambling and uneven, this memoir offers an insider’s look at a place that few people know anything about and fewer still have ever seen.
21. The Thing
Ok this isn’t actually a book but is one of my favourite movies of all time and is set in the Antarctic. Watch this 1982 version not the remake. Be warned, it’s scary!
Amazon have a free Kindle reading app that I’ve found to be good. You can get it here:
If you’re curious what it’s like to live in the Arctic then check out this post about living in the Arctic.
These are some of the best books to read when travelling for more reading.
Here’s some guidebooks to the Arctic regions and Antarctica to further your research on the areas:
*The descriptions for the books are taken either from the backs of the books themselves or from GoodReads and Amazon. Naturally they accurately depict what the books are about.
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