Max Jones is the author of The Last Great Quest: Captain Scott’s Antarctic Sacrifice, an examination of the enduring appeal of the Scott story, the drive to explore hostile environments and the nature of heroism.
1. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)
The title of Cherry-Garrard’s account of Scott’s last Antarctic expedition refers not to the polar journey, but to the trek he endured with Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers in search of the eggs of the emperor penguin. The three men barely survived the first journey ever attempted during an Antarctic winter, experiencing temperatures as low as -77.5ºF (-25.3ºC), only to die only a few months later. Mourning for his lost friends, disillusioned by war and assisted by his neighbour George Bernard Shaw, Cherry-Garrard composed a work which transcends the confines of the expedition to offer a powerful meditation on the nature of exploration and intellectual curiosity in the modern world.
2. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1980)
The Right Stuff brilliantly captures the mentality of the first American astronauts and the nation which venerated their exploits at the height of the cold war. Wolfe is particularly good at charting the insular social world of the astronauts and their wives. His roller-coaster descriptions of disasters and near-misses eventually persuaded one dubious reader that excessive use of exclamation points can actually be very effective!
3. The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels (1845)
The social explorers of modern urban life, from Henry Mayhew through Charles Booth to George Orwell, surely demand inclusion in any list of exploration narratives. But Engels’ indictment of working-class living conditions comes out ahead, for using graphic descriptions of the new industrial city as the foundation for a groundbreaking intellectual critique.
4. Scott’s Last Expedition Vol I: The Journals of Captain RF Scott (1913)
Captain Scott’s last journals remain the ultimate expression of a particular type of expedition narrative, in which the journey to a distant land becomes a journey into the self. Scott’s ‘Message to the Public’, scrawled in the back of his journal as he faced death in March 1912, is a remarkable articulation of the heroic fantasies of his age, fantasies which would collide with mud and metal in the trenches of the western front.
5. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
Consulted by Columbus and the only travel book known to be in the possession of Leonardo da Vinci, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville first began to circulate in Europe in the 1360s. This classic work of medieval travel writing takes the reader on a fabulous romp through strange lands inhabited by marvellous monsters, including giant griffons, self-sacrificing fish and men without heads who have eyes in their shoulders.
6. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968)
A mesmerising collection of essays exploring California in the 1960s by one of America’s greatest writers, on topics ranging from murder trials to the movies of John Wayne. Few cultural commentators have rivalled Didion’s ability to express penetrating insights in such elegant prose.
7. South: the Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917 by Ernest Shackleton (1919)
Shackleton may not have written as well as Scott, but his astonishing tale of survival after the destruction of his ship Endurance in the Antarctic remains the most dramatic adventure story in the annals of exploration. I won’t spoil it for those who don’t know the story. I’ll just say that the fact they still had to do THAT to reach safety, after doing THAT and THAT, gets me every time.
8. The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa from 1865 to His Death, edited by Horace Waller (1874)
Livingstone’s first book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, sold 70,000 copies and caused a sensation in 1856. Yet his popularity had waned in the 1860s after his unsuccessful voyage up the River Zambesi. The Reverend Horace Waller’s skilful editing of Livingstone’s last journals did much to restore the heroic reputation of the most famous of the great Victorian explorers.
9. Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler (1998)
Many writers have mused on modern Antarctic life, but Sarah Wheeler’s Terra Incognita is my favourite. Wheeler skilfully interweaves accounts of the heroic exploits of the polar pioneers with observations from her own experience venturing into the very male environment of Antarctica in the 1990s.
10. The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific: As Told by Selections of His Own Journals 1768-1779
Cook’s meticulous account of his voyages in the Pacific between 1768 and 1779 is a monument to a distinctively Enlightenment sensibility. In marked contrast to Captain Scott’s journal, the people and environment of the Pacific are the central actors, rather than the explorer’s own character.