From harrowing accounts of survival to the heartwarming tale of a rescued penguin, we list our favourite books about Antarctica
The most inhospitable place on Earth is an engrossing setting for any story, be it fictional or factual. Unsurprisingly, Antarctica’s literary canon is filled with tales of tragedy and/or survival against the odds. It would be easy, then, to fill this list with biographies of Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton alone. But Antarctica deserves attention beyond its tales of tragedy.
With that in mind, we have taken a broader view. There are, of course, profiles of the pioneers and their epic journeys of discovery spanning more than a century of polar exploration, but we’ve also included a diverse mix of memoirs, biographies and novels – from crime to science fiction – all with Antarctica at the core of the narrative.
Whether you’re readying for a voyage to the great white continent or just have a passing interest in the most uncharted area of our planet, you’ll find something for you in our list of books about Antarctica.
Best books about Antarctica
Our list is in no particular order and draws on our personal favourites as well Amazon best-sellers and Goodreads’ most popular books.
1. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
In August 1914, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton boarded the Endurance and set sail for Antarctica where he planned to make the first crossing of the uncharted continent on foot. What unfolded would become the defining saga of the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’. Lansing’s 1959 book (since republished) narrates the harrowing and miraculous voyage of Shackleton and his team as they battle the elements in one of the most astonishing feats of human courage.
2. Scott and Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth
In the finest analysis of Amundsen and Scott’s infamous race to the South Pole, Huntford captures the driving ambitions of the era and the complex and often deeply flawed men who were charged with carrying them out. It is also the only English-language work on the subject based on the original Norwegian sources.
3. South: The Story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Expedition
Recently republished as a Penguin Modern Classic, South is the story of Shackleton’s extraordinary feat told in his own words. First published in 1919, Shackleton methodically describes the entire spectacular expedition. The report can be slow-paced at times but absorbing nonetheless and remains one of the most popular books about Antarctica.
4. Last Man Off: A True Story of Disaster and Survival on the Antarctic Seas
The waters of Antarctica, 1998. A 23-year-old Lewis has just started his dream job aboard a deep-sea fishing boat. A storm hits. With the captain missing and the crew forced to abandon the ship, Lewis leads the escape onto three life rafts where the battle for survival begins.
5. Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer
Cox was the first person to swim the Strait of Magellan, one of the world’s most treacherous stretches of water. After a string of record-breaking feats, she went on to become the first person to swim a mile in zero-degree water. This is her story.
6. Away with the Penguins / How the Penguins Saved Veronica (US title)
In this novel, 85-year-old Veronica McCreedy is estranged from her family and wants to find a worthwhile cause to leave her fortune to. After watching a documentary about penguins, she journeys to the fictional Locket Island in Antarctica where she convinces the reticent team to rescue an orphaned penguin chick. He becomes part of life at the base and Veronica’s closed heart begins to open.
7. The Worst Journey in the World
Written by the youngest member of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, The Worst Journey in the World has earned widespread praise for its frank treatment of the difficulties of the expedition, the causes of its disastrous outcome and the meaning (if any) of human suffering in such extreme conditions. Later, Cherry-Garrard was in the search party that located Scott and his men, long since perished from starvation and cold.
8. Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica
Terra Incognita is considered a modern classic on exploring and understanding the Antarctic. The book is a meditation on the landscape, myths and history of one of the remotest parts of the globe. The book also reports on an encounter with the international temporary residents of the region, how they manage to live in close confinement, as well as the mechanics of day-to-day life in such conditions.
9. Cold: Extreme Adventures at the Lowest Temperatures on Earth
Fiennes has spent much of his life exploring and working in conditions of extreme cold. The loss of several of his fingers to frostbite is a testament to the horrors explorers are exposed to at such perilous temperatures. This book studies the chequered history of the attempts to discover and understand these hazardous regions, from the early voyages of Cook, Ross, Weddell, Amundsen, Shackleton and Franklin to Sir Ranulph’s own extraordinary accomplishments.
10. Antarctica: A Novel
A work of science fiction covering a range of characters at McMurdo Station, the largest settlement in Antarctica, at a time when the international treaty which protects the continent is about to dissolve. As politicians wrangle over its fate, major corporations begin probing to plunder Antarctica’s resources while radical environmentalists carry out a covert campaign of sabotage to reclaim the land from those who would destroy it for profit.
11. Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night
The harrowing survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly wrong, with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness and their minds ravaged by the sound of dozens of rats teeming in the hold, they descended into madness.
12. Alone in Antarctica
Felicity Aston, physicist and meteorologist, took two months off from all human contact as she became the first woman – and only the third person in history – to ski solo across the entire continent of Antarctica. Within days, frozen into her facemask and reflecting on what had drawn her to such a place, she battles desperate weather while towing heavy sledges. She wakes up every morning believing she cannot face another day as the expedition becomes a race against time to reach the coast before the last flight out.
13. Lean Fall Stand
In this novel, Doc Wright is installed at the fictional Station K near Byrd Glacier in Antarctica when his team becomes lost in an ice storm. He survives but something has gone wrong inside his head. Back home, he is the only one who can explain what transpired in Antarctica. But after what changed, everything has lost its meaning. Now, his wife, Anna, must become his carer and he has to find a new way to be in the world. All he can do is try to tell his story – even if words fail him.
Research scientist Evelyn Edwards always knew the Antarctic held deep secrets but the discovery of a 40,000-year-old body buried under the ice cap surpasses even her wildest expectations. Just as her team begins extracting the body, the dream turns into a horrific nightmare as they are targeted by someone who wants to keep this secret buried. An absorbing, rollercoaster novel from J.T. Brannan.
15. The Dark
In this novel, doctor Kate North jumps at the chance to be an emergency replacement at the UN research station in Antarctica. The previous doctor died in a tragic accident while out on the ice. But as total darkness descends for the winter, she begins to suspect that his death wasn’t accidental at all. In the most inhospitable environment and cut off from the rest of the world, there’s a killer on the loose.
16. Race to the Pole: Conquering Antarctica in the world’s toughest endurance race
In 2009, six teams of adventurers and explorers gathered to race to the South Pole on foot. It is the first time that anyone had undertaken such a race in almost 100 years: since Amundsen beat Scott to the same goal in 1911. Double-Olympic gold-winning medallist James Cracknell and TV presenter and adventurer Ben Fogle must contend with 800km of icy wilderness, -45°C temperatures, hidden crevasses, frostbite, and the favourites to win: a team of former soldiers from Norway, trained in Arctic warfare.
17. Skating To Antarctica
This strange but humorous travelogue features Diski’s daughter, Chloe, who encourages Diski to uncover what became of her own estranged mother. The memoir alternates between a pilgrimage to Antarctica and a private journey into Diski’s own mind and memories.
18. Erebus: The Story of a Ship
Following the discovery of its wreck in 2014, Michael Palin wrote this superb biography of the sailing ship HMS Erebus. The book follows the ship from its launch in 1826, to the voyages of discovery that led to glory in the Antarctic including carrying humans further south than ever before, to its ultimate catastrophe in the Arctic.
19. The Birthday Boys
A fictionalised retelling of Scott’s doomed expedition, The Birthday Boys uses first-person narratives of five men on the voyage to give different perspectives of the expedition. Scott, Petty Officer Taff Evans, ship’s doctor Dr Edward Wilson, Lieutenant Henry Bowers and Captain Lawrence Oates each give their account of the hardships, the conflicts and, finally, the failure of the entire endeavour.
The story of American explorer Admiral Byrd’s 1934 Antarctic expedition became an instant bestseller upon its release. He was already an international hero after piloting 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. Unsurprisingly, things went terribly wrong.