Earth Day, celebrated on April 22, commemorates the birth of the modern environmental movement. In honor of the celebration, we’ve rounded up a list of classic books about the great outdoors, from epic novels to hair-raising memoirs. Whether you’re one with nature or an armchair adventurer, these fiction and nonfiction titles are sure to captivate you. Publishers’ descriptions included below.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
An instant classic when it was first published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is at once a thrilling frontier adventure and a uniquely American ode to the power of nature. The story begins at the dawn of the Klondike Gold Rush, when capable sled dogs are in high demand. Half St. Bernard and half sheep dog, Buck is stolen from an estate in California’s idyllic Santa Clara Valley and shipped north. Beset by the harsh conditions of the Yukon, the recklessness of his owners, and the ruthlessness of the other dogs, Buck must learn to recover his primitive instincts in order to survive. But when he forms a special bond with a prospector named John Thornton, Buck is torn between two worlds: that of his human companion and that of the relentless, beckoning wilderness.
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
Off the coast of New Guinea a storm rages for seven days, violently tossing the passenger vessel holding a family of six about the sea. Left behind by the crew and other passengers of their wrecked ship, the family has no choice but to go it alone. They fill tubs with tools and provisions they may need to survive, and set off for a nearby island — devoid of people but teeming with lush natural life. Once on the island, they build themselves a home, complete with livestock, a small farm, and a sturdy tree house for shelter. In no time, the four boys and their steadfast parents learn to thrive on the jungle island, learning just how much can be accomplished through hard work, cooperation, curiosity, and perseverance.
First published in 1812, The Swiss Family Robinson is a rip-roaring adventure tale and an engrossing novel about self-sufficiency, responsibility, and the uses and wonders of the natural world.
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
First published in 1958, a year after On the Road put the Beat Generation on the map, The Dharma Bums stands as one of Jack Kerouac’s most powerful and influential novels. The story focuses on two ebullient young Americans — mountaineer, poet, and Zen Buddhist Japhy Ryder, and Ray Smith, a zestful, innocent writer — whose quest for Truth leads them on a heroic odyssey, from marathon parties and poetry jam sessions in San Francisco’s Bohemia to solitude and mountain climbing in the High Sierras.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The last novel Ernest Hemingway saw published, The Old Man and the Sea has proved itself to be one of the enduring works of American fiction. It is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent 20th-century classic.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
Far off the coast of California looms a harsh rock known as the island of San Nicholas. Dolphins flash in the blue waters around it, sea otter play in the vast kep beds, and sea elephants loll on the stony beaches.
Here, in the early 1800s, according to history, an Indian girl spent 18 years alone, and this beautifully written novel is her story. It is a romantic adventure filled with drama and heartache, for not only was mere subsistence on so desolate a spot a near miracle, but Karana had to contend with the ferocious pack of wild dogs that had killed her younger brother, constantly guard against the Aleutian sea otter hunters, and maintain a precarious food supply.
More than this, it is an adventure of the spirit that will haunt the reader long after the book has been put down. Karana’s quiet courage, her Indian self-reliance and acceptance of fate, transform what to many would have been a devastating ordeal into an uplifting experience. From loneliness and terror come strength and serenity in this Newbery Medal-winning classic.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
In 1845, Henry David Thoreau retreated from society in favor of a life among nature. What resulted was Walden, a memoir that brings to life the woods around Walden Pond and chronicles Thoreau’s two years of self-sufficiency and introspection. Covering topics as diverse as economic independence and spiritual enlightenment, these essays have become a hallmark of American transcendentalism.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
With classic simplicity and a painter’s feeling for atmosphere and detail, Isak Dinesen tells of the years she spent from 1914 to 1931 managing a coffee plantation in Kenya.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
First published in 1968, Desert Solitaire is one of Edward Abbey’s most critically acclaimed works and marks his first foray into the world of nonfiction writing. Written while Abbey was working as a ranger at Arches National Park outside of Moab, Utah, Desert Solitaire is a rare view of one man’s quest to experience nature in its purest form. Through prose that is by turns passionate and poetic, Abbey reflects on the condition of our remaining wilderness and the future of a civilization that cannot reconcile itself to living in the natural world as well as his own internal struggle with morality. As the world continues its rapid development, Abbey’s cry to maintain the natural beauty of the West remains just as relevant today as when this book was written.
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean
Just as Norman Maclean writes at the end of A River Runs Through It that he is “haunted by waters,” so have readers been haunted by his novella. A retired English professor who began writing fiction at the age of 70, Maclean produced what is now recognized as one of the classic American stories of the 20th century.
Maclean grew up in the western Rocky Mountains in the first decades of the 20th century. As a young man he worked many summers in logging camps and for the United States Forest Service. The two novellas and short story in this collection are based on his own experiences — the experiences of a young man who found that life was only a step from art in its structures and beauty. The beauty he found was in reality, and so he leaves a careful record of what it was like to work in the woods when it was still a world of horse and hand and foot, without power saws, “cats,” or four-wheel drives.
Populated with drunks, loggers, card sharks, and whores, and set in the small towns and surrounding trout streams and mountains of western Montana, the stories concern themselves with the complexities of fly fishing, logging, fighting forest fires, playing cribbage, and being a husband, a son, and a father. By turns raunchy, poignant, caustic, and elegiac, these are superb tales which express, in Maclean’s own words, “a little of the love I have for the earth as it goes by.”
The Everglades by Marjory Stoneman Douglas
The Everglades: River of Grass, first published in 1947, begins with the famous passage: “There are no other Everglades in the world,” and continues with a fascinating look at the natural and human history of the Florida Everglades. The book portrays, in layperson’s terms, the ecology of the Everglades, its important plant and animal life, its long Native American history, the coming of the Spanish, its early settlements, and the modern attempts of drainage and development, typically with disastrous results.
This landmark book redefined public opinion of the Everglades from that of ‘worthless swamp’ to one in which the Everglades are valued as a unique ecological treasure of vital importance to the health of southern Florida. The Everglades: River of Grass remains essential reading for anyone interested in the history and conservation of this vast wilderness. Included are 2 maps.
In addition to researching and writing this book, author Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) played an important leadership role in the effort to protect the Everglades from development, and she was active in other social causes as well (civil rights, women’s rights) during the course of her long life. She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published in three serialized excerpts in the New Yorker in June of 1962. The book appeared in September of that year and the outcry that followed its publication forced the banning of DDT and spurred revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water. Carson’s passionate concern for the future of our planet reverberated powerfully throughout the world, and her eloquent book was instrumental in launching the environmental movement. It is without question one of the landmark books of the 20th century.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Back in America after 20 years in Britain, Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native country by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. The AT offers an astonishing landscape of silent forests and sparkling lakes — and to a writer with the comic genius of Bill Bryson, it also provides endless opportunities to witness the majestic silliness of his fellow human beings.
For a start there’s the gloriously out-of-shape Stephen Katz, a buddy from Iowa along for the walk. Despite Katz’s overwhelming desire to find cozy restaurants, he and Bryson eventually settle into their stride, and while on the trail they meet a bizarre assortment of hilarious characters. But A Walk in the Woods is more than just a laugh-out-loud hike. Bryson’s acute eye is a wise witness to this beautiful but fragile trail, and as he tells its fascinating history, he makes a moving plea for the conservation of America’s last great wilderness. An adventure, a comedy, and a celebration, A Walk in the Woods has become a modern classic of travel literature.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
At 22, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver’s fifth novel is a hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature, and of nature itself. It weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives amid the mountains and farms of southern Appalachia. Over the course of one humid summer, this novel’s intriguing protagonists face disparate predicaments but find connections to one another and to the flora and fauna with which they necessarily share a place.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild.
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