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If you find yourself towards the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere these days, this time of year brings with it a certain chill. My friends in Montreal speak of two-foot drifts of snow that you can barely bike through; as of this writing it’s -33C in Novosibirsk, and it’s rather cold in Nunavut (to be fair, it’s always rather cold in Nunavut.)
As a small child, one of my favourite things to do on very cold and snowy days was to curl up under a blanket and read books about far off places and adventures from the comfort of my warm covers. If you ever feel like doing the same, here are five books well-suited to that purpose:
The Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Visited and Never Willby Judith Schalansky
If you like maps and far-off places, this is a triumph — it’s a beautiful hard-cover clothbound love letter to the cartographic and the remote. Its author grew up in East Germany and spent her days imagining the world outside the wall using her parents’ old atlas.
Here, she’s hand-drawn fifty maps of islands in the middle of the sea, from Easter Island to Russia’s Lonely Island or the Dissapointment Islands (named by Magellan, whose men starved here for a bit back in the 16th century). She finds these forgotten dots and tells us about them. The book is replete with stories of shipwrecks, miniscule kingdoms, and bizarre anecdotes. I can’t imagine a snowy afternoon better spent.
Eating Dirtby Charlotte Gill
This is a fantastic book for the purposes of curling up under the covers and reading about other people’s discomfort. Charlotte Gill spent 20 years as a treeplanter — a person who earns money planting trees by hand to reforest the land harvested for timber by Canada’s forestry industry. She describes life in the remote Canadian backcountry, complete with bears, damp wool socks, broken trucks, and angular men with impressive beards. (Sometimes, her descriptions tend toward the hackneyed: At one point, she cringe-inducingly describes everyone’s “piercing eyes” and “chiseled jaw”, but the book is quite enjoyable in other aspects).
She speaks about the tragedy of remote logging towns, of the history of British Columbia’s old growth forests, about the absurdities inherent in the logging industry, as well as writing anecdotally about her own experiences. It’s precisely this combination of the personal and general that makes this a compelling book.
Other treeplanters will find her descriptions of damp wool, malicious crows that eat your lunch, soggy sandwiches, and cheap beer comfortingly familiar, but stories of bears and helicopters and ancient forests may well be interesting to people with no experience in this sort of thing.
Wind, Sand, and Starsby Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The man who became famous for the illustrated children’s book the Little Prince was an airline pilot for the French mail airline Aéropostale in the 1930s. This is a book about those days. Saint-Exupery’s soaring lyricism and poetic sentimentality would almost seem overblown were it not for the subject matter — flying rickety planes across uncharted mountain passes, navigating by the stars, and living in constant peril just to deliver the mail.
He writes of pioneering aviators who crashed in the Andes, of being stranded without food or water in the vastness of the Sahara desert, and of the view from above the clouds on starry nights. I read this book on my breaks while working as a mailman in Montréal, and it added a fun sense of false adventure to my slushy mail routes. The French original is called Terre des Hommes, and perusing it in the bookstore made me wish I spoke better French.
Seven Years in Tibetby Heinrich Harrer
This is Harrer’s famous autobiographical tale of his accidental travels through Tibet during World War II. Harrer was an Austrian mountaineer who was returning from an expedition to Nanga Parbat in India when he was discovered by the British and sent to a detention camp. He and a friend escaped and made their way on foot across Tibet, managing to get into the reclusive country without proper documentation.
Harrer eventually reached the capital of Lhasa and befriended the young Dalai Lama. The book is at once a compelling adventure story and an insight into Tibetan culture — the Dalai Lama praised it as a vehicle for westerners to find out about Tibet. It was also made into a rather famous movie starring Brad Pitt, which is all very well and good but entirely useless for reading under the covers.
White Fang or The Call of the Wildby Jack London
These canonical classics are maybe the definitive adventure books — their author, after all, lived in a remote cabin deep in the Yukon wilderness. It’s possible that you, like me, were forced to read The Call of the Wild in the sixth grade, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth rereading, and spending some time with sled dogs and settlers.
Flipping through it, I love the simple sense of freedom and adventure that permeates London’s writing, though his books make me glad that I’m drinking tea in my warm bed and not freezing in a cold cabin somewhere on the White River.