Recommended Arctic Titles

Bibliography of Recommended Books on the Arctic in the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library Compiled and Annotated by John R. Bockstoce


Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage
By William Edward Parry, 1821

In one of the most astonishingly successful expeditions of the 19th century, 28-year-old William Edward Parry, commanding two sturdy ships of the British Admiralty in 1819, went in search of the long-sought northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic. The expedition almost reached the Beaufort Sea near Alaska, where the Parry and his crews would have gained passage to the Pacific, but heavy pack ice intervened. The men wintered in Canada's Arctic Archipelago. When winter broke, Parry sailed back to Britain, where he and his men were greeted with heroes' welcomes for venturing farther west across the Arctic Ocean than anyone before them. Parry made three later northern voyages and wrote a multivolume account of his explorations. But it was the initial volume of 1821, with its evocative narrative of the first expedition and his descriptions of the exotic beauty of the Arctic, that most fully captured the public's imagination. (Like the other books in this column, Parry's work is available in a modern edition.)

The Voyage of the Vega Round Asia and Europe
By Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, 1881

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld's graceful narrative describes the first transit of the Northeast Passage along northernmost Russia. Aboard the ship Vega, Nordenskiöld left Sweden in the summer of 1878 and almost reached the Bering Strait but was frozen in at the end of September on the north coast of Chukotka in eastern Siberia. He offered schnapps to visiting Chukchi reindeer herders and learned that the Chukchi called it "ram" (rum), "the word being often accompanied," he wrote, by "a happy expression." The ship moved on in July 1879 and, via the Suez Canal, returned to Stockholm—having also completed the first circumnavigation of Eurasia.

Farthest North
By Fridtjof Nansen, 1897

Although the expedition ship Jeannette was crushed in the ice north of Siberia in 1881, some of the wreckage was discovered in southwest Greenland three years later. This fact led Fridtjof Nansen to conclude that a trans-polar current must exist in the Arctic Ocean. To test his theory Nansen left Norway in 1893 in a heavily reinforced ship called the Fram, sailed east along the coast of Siberia to a point close to where the Jeannette was lost, then allowed the ship to be frozen in. Nansen found that the Fram was indeed drifting toward Greenland, and in March 1895 he and one companion—leaving the crew behind on the slowly moving ship—set out on a punishing journey toward the North Pole with dogsleds, skis and kayaks. The pair set a new record for a northernmost advance before they turned south and spent a miserable winter in a hut 10 feet by 6 feet, living on walrus meat and covered in soot from their blubber lamp. In spring 1896 they stumbled upon a British expedition and returned with it to Norway, where the Fram—after its three-year journey—had arrived only one day earlier. Nansen's understated account (he describes the pressure of pack ice slowly building up on the Fram as "dying by inches," which "makes matters look rather awkward at present") is a vivid testament to his endurance and perseverance against appalling conditions.

The North-West Passage
By Roald Amundsen, 1908

Roald Amundsen's lively and readable account of his arctic expedition and life with the Inuit is the story of a supremely competent sailor and winter traveler. From boyhood, Amundsen dreamed of making the first transit of the Northwest Passage. In 1903 he departed Norway in the little herring sloop Gjøa and reached a small harbor on King William Island in the Canadian Arctic, where he spent the next two winters learning valuable lessons from the natives about arctic survival. In the summer of 1905, Amundsen pushed on westward and had almost reached the Alaska coast when the Gjøa was frozen in again—but by then the expedition could be considered to have completed the Northwest Passage. To send word of his achievement Amundsen traveled by dogsled on a 1,000-mile round-trip to the telegraph station at Eagle, Alaska. The Gjøa reached San Francisco in 1906. Five years later, Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole.