With the wreck of Endurance found, here are books about its icy, perilous expedition

·3 min read

The discovery of the wrecked Endurance, well preserved almost 10,000 feet down in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea, brings that terrible voyage back to mind. Here are a few classics that explore the 20-month saga of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, in which 28 men set out in 1914 to cross Antarctica only to see their vessel trapped, and crushed, by ice. The captain was Ernest Shackleton.

“Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing. (McGraw-Hill, 1959; 2015, Basic Books.) Lansing drew on diaries, other personal accounts, and interviews. “What gives Lansing’s account special power is that he does not pull his punches,” Walter Sullivan wrote in the New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1959. “How do men behave, confronted with months of unbroken suffering?” The reader comes away, he wrote, “with new faith in the resourcefulness of man, his almost indefatigable will to live and, above all, his ability to fight back despair.” (Other reviewers, considering books on survival, cite Lansing’s: “incomparable,” Mary Roach; “one of the best adventure stories ever written,” Michael O’Donnell.)

“The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition” by Caroline Alexander. (Knopf, 1998, with the American Museum of Natural History.) “Elegant, subdued” storytelling by Alexander, who drew on newly available journals and other documents, and previously unpublished images by expedition photographer Frank Hurley. “Many of the photographs are not only quite beautiful, particularly of the Endurance as it sits icebound yet under desperate full sail, but also moving, with crew members putting on their best faces as death sat waiting just outside the picture frame,” wrote Kirkus.

“Shackleton” by Roland Huntford. (Scribner, 1986.) “Superb,” Sara Wheeler said in an aside in The Wall Street Journal. It’s a detailed (800-page) biography of the Irish-born explorer, including historical context, “the complexities of Anglo-Irish identity,” and psychological analysis, she wrote, reviewing a new book lacking that context (“Shackleton,” Ranulph Fiennes).


Ukraine/Russia reading: Civilians are under siege, without food and water; safety measures at Chernobyl, in Russian forces’ hands, is deteriorating. Consider, again, “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine,” Anne Applebaum (2017; more than 3 million Ukrainians died in that 1936 famine). Also “Midnight in Chernobyl,” Adam Higginbotham (2019; the 1986 nuclear disaster and what it showed about the Soviet system). (NYT, WSJ)

Don’t mess with ...: “Students across Texas are forming banned-book clubs and distribution drives,” the Texas Tribune wrote on Twitter, as state GOP lawmakers “target books that focus mostly on themes of race, gender and sexuality.” The Texas Library Association formed a coalition to fight bans there: Texans for the Right to Read, Publishers Weekly said.

In case you missed it: Unpublished sketches by Dr. Seuss will be the inspiration for a series of kids’ books by a diverse group of emerging artists. Last year, Seuss Enterprises said it would stop publishing certain Seuss classics because of racist imagery and stereotypes. (NYT)

From Bob Dylan: “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” November. (Pitchfork via Publishers Weekly)


New and recent

“Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond” by Robin George Andrews, a volcanologist and science journalist. (Norton, 336 pp.) A take on volcanoes that are best described as the “biggest, highest, hottest, coldest, oldest, weirdest, fastest, farthest,” writes geosciences professor Robert M. Thorson. In the interest of storytelling, Andrews sometimes discounts how much scientists do know, but it’s an illuminating and enthusiastic book. (WSJ)

— Erica Smith, erica.smith@pilotonline.com