Adventure is hardly something you hunt -- you can trek out into open country and wait for it to occur but you can not plan it. That is the purpose. It's the very randomness of this, the pervasive tickle of fear that something is about to proceed, that's the maximum discomfort of authentic adventure, and its greatest reward. There's a portion of us that is hard-wired for such doubt, and the alertness it brings elevates us, makes us alive.
Writing about the experience of adventure can be a bravado performance --"I had been assaulted by a seven-foot bear / fought a crocodile using a toothpick / walked into the moon," and all to state:"I came within a whisker of departure ." But there's a richer literary heritage, an exuberant venturing out to the world, a fair and humble exposure to its variety and risks, its attractiveness and its horrors, and the compulsion to capture it in prose that is ignited by means of a mix of envy and wonder. That is the adventure of many of the books below -- a hunting out, a spirited or even reckless exposure to the unknown to be able to reveal something generally unstated, to convey:"I came within a whisker of all lifespan"
It had been an idea that had been brewing for decades, conceived in the heat of libraries and on the ground of my analysis, spread with charts and maps and books from ancient Irish literature. I had little experience of sailing on that scale, and none single-handed. By the word go, I was beset with a non human anxiety that rose to real fear every time that I put to sea. I learned two things fairly quickly -- that these anxiety is the basis of excellent seamanship, so it created a condition of mind that was hyper-sensitive to every moment, every place, every story, each man I met.
The weather was dreadful, the coast exposed, that the harbours few. Keeping two tons of wooden vessel afloat and pointing in the perfect direction was a challenge, a continuous worry. Now I miss it with all of my heart.
1. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee:
A book that captures as well any the soul of open-hearted venturing. The 19-year older Lee leaves his Gloucestershire home in the world, with a tent, a violin, a few clothes and some biscuits. He walks first through southern England, subsequently through Spain. He's hot, hungry, lonely and destitute. His account, written years after, is coated with longing and bittersweet reduction. It tells of genuine hardship, and genuine pleasure.
2. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan:
Autobiography with a surfboard. Finnegan graphs with disarming candour his footloose years of travelling, studying, travelling, writing -- and constantly looking for waves. He had been the very first to discover many breaks at the Pacific, plus he writes because he surfs -- with flair, power and courage.
3. Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings by Jonathan Raban:
Few could craft a sentence like Raban, and you will find few greater travelogues of the 20th century compared to his three waterborne books -- Coasting, Old Glory and Passage to Juneau. In each one he sets off on another vessel with undisguised anxiety to produce a story of electrifying prose. Sailing to Juneau in Alaska from his home in Seattle is a proper nautical adventure, using fearsome incidents -- winds and tides and fog -- and a calamitous finale that doesn't have anything to do with the elements.
4. Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard:
A lovely, crazy, crackling fireball of a book. Alone at a glass-fronted house in the far north-west of the US, Dillard thinks and muses and observes the gift of every morning. "Each day is a god," she opens, but tinges her accounts with the random cruelty of presence, its own"salt". Two decades she spent there and her short searing record is the story of a spiritual adventure and one in prose. Both twist off towards the inexpressible, and on occasion the nonsensical.
5. The Kick: A Life Among Writers by Richard Murphy:
Irish poet Murphy led an adventurous life which stopped in 2018 in Sri Lanka at age 90. For several years he lived on the west coast of Ireland. With limited understanding of sailing that he took paying guests out on his very own classic sailing vessel, a restored Galway hooker. In addition, he bought an uninhabited island. The combination of perilous waters, west shore life and Murphy's reports of visiting fellow poets Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Theodore Roethke unite for an unforgettable memoir.
6. From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides: An Autobiography by Margaret Fay Shaw:
Born and brought up in Pennsylvania, Shaw was a gifted musician. She planned a career as a professional pianist, however at her early 20s she contracted an illness in her hands that prevented it. She decided then to go to Scotland, to understand cultural and accumulate traditional songs. She did exactly that -- and expired to the isle of both Canna at age 101. Her autobiography and her Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist closely capture the twilight world of the Hebrides in the 20th century.
7. Dersu the Trapper by VK Arseniev:
Between 1902 and 1930, Vladimir Arseniev directed several mapping and scientific expeditions into the darkened wilderness. Full of a naturalist's enthusiasms and also the very real risks of this taiga (snow forest), his memoir is rough and enchanting and driven by the deeply moving story of his friendship with Dersu of this Gold tribe. Made into a Excellent movie, Dersu Uzala, directed by Akira Kurosawa.
8. Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamorna Ash:
A beautiful account of immersion in an alien world -- the closely bound fishing area of Newlyn at the far west of Cornwall. Spending weeks with sailors on little fishing boats, and Between their equally turbulent shore lifestyle, Ash provides a sharp and poignant portrait of guys living an extreme and peripheral presence.
9. The Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator translated by Gerard McNamara:
An Odyssey-like vessel, a mythical adventure during the western ocean -- visiting such fanciful landfalls because the islands of fat sheep, of plenty, and the one hidden by a curtain of stone. A thin gloss of Christian detail covers a much older oral tale, told and retold over countless centuries, an elemental quest from someplace deep in our storytelling ago. It is allegory during its strangest, using a dreamy, hypnotic allure. Early translations from the Irish have been found in many languages and it proved to be a hugely popular narrative in medieval Europe.
10. Red Dust by Ma Jian:
From the early 1980s, Ma Jian was a dissident artist in Beijing, bringing a growing number of interest from the authorities. To avoid arrest, he took on the street and also spent three years traveling around China. Picaresque, stressed and brilliantly composed, it offers a fantastic view of China from the inside.