Adventure books are pretty much guaranteed to provide a gripping narrative, full of action, danger, and the unknown—and they’re also the type of books that readers tend to tear through at a breakneck pace, unable to resist turning the pages till they’ve reached the end. For those who have already exhausted the books of Jon Krakauer and Ernest Shackleton, here are four excellent and similarly riveting nonfiction adventure tales to satisfy (or encourage) your wanderlust.
Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is best known for writing the much loved book The Little Prince. But he was also an aviator in the early days of flight, and this memoir, which National Geographic named a Top Ten Adventure Book of All Time, recounts his time spent flying airmail planes in the 1930s throughout Africa and South America. It was treacherous work; the pilots flew “open ships and thrust our heads out round the windshield, in bad weather, to take our bearings.” The book is filled with Saint-Exupéry’s tales of near-disaster—and then there were the actual disasters, like a crash in the Sahara that nearly killed him. But the story is really about Saint-Exupéry’s discovery of the alternate reality of flight, and his meditation on making “an incursion into a forbidden world whence it was going to be infinitely difficult to return.”
Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, by Dorothy Wickenden
In the early 1900s, young American women rarely had the chance to travel across the country alone in search of adventure. Wickenden’s grandmother, Dorothy Woodruff, was one exception. In 1916, she and a friend, Rosamond Underwood, departed the small New York town where they’d grown up and headed West to teach school in the mountains of Colorado. Through letters and other period sources, Wickenden reconstructs two journeys: the women’s long trip to a part of the country they’d never seen, and their quest for a type of independence that was, for women of their time, all too often out of reach.
The Lost City of Z, by David Grann
Leave it to David Grann, master of suspenseful plot, to write a book that’s not only a tale of adventure, but also a mystery. The Lost City of Z tells the story of Percy Fawcett, “the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose.” In the 1920s, Fawcett set off for the Amazon in search of a lost civilization, called “Z”. He was never heard from again. In the decades following Fawcett’s vanishing, his whereabouts became the subject of intense conjecture; many tried to retrace his path and find evidence that he might still be alive. Grann writes about the clues Fawcett left behind on his journey, as well as his own growing obsession with Fawcett’s story, which led to Grann’s own attempt—recounted with attention paid to both the hilarious and the harrowing—to follow in Fawcett’s footsteps.
Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen
Karen Blixen, a Danish aristocrat, had the spirit of an adventurer from a very young age. As soon as she could escape the stiff Victorian world of her upbringing, she did so, marrying a Swedish cousin and moving to Africa in the early 20th century. She tells the story in her memoir Out of Africa, written under the pen name Isak Dinesen. Blixen soon divorced, and the most compelling sections of her book are those in which she finds herself alone in an unknown country and must decide what kind of life she wants to make for herself.
What’s your favorite nonfiction adventure book?