Adventure is not something you seek – you can trek out into open country and wait for it to happen but you can’t plan it. That’s the point. Its original meaning, from Middle English, was “that which happens without design; chance, hap, luck”. It is the very randomness of it, the pervasive tickle of fear that something is about to go wrong, that is the greatest discomfort of true adventure, and its greatest reward. There is a part of us that is hard-wired for such uncertainty, and the alertness it brings elevates us, makes us alive.
Writing about the experience of adventure can be a bravado performance – “I was attacked by a seven-foot bear / fought a crocodile with a toothpick / walked to the moon,” and all to say: “I came within a whisker of death.” But there is a richer literary tradition, an exuberant venturing out into the world, an honest and humble exposure to all its variety and risks, its beauty and its horrors, and the compulsion to record it in prose that is ignited by a combination of wonder and apprehension. That is the adventure of most of the books below – a seeking out, a spirited or even reckless exposure to the unfamiliar in order to reveal something usually unstated, to say: “I came within a whisker of life.”
A few years ago, I sailed up the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland to explore the islands of that seaboard, both real and imaginary. It was an idea that had been brewing for years, conceived in the warmth of libraries and on the floor of my study, spread with charts and maps and books of early Irish literature. I had little experience of sailing on that scale, and none single-handed. From the word go, I was beset by a low-level anxiety that rose to palpable fear each time I put to sea. I learned two things pretty quickly – that such anxiety is the basis of good seamanship, and that it generated a state of mind that was hyper-sensitive to every moment, every place, every story, every person I met.
The weather was terrible, the coast exposed, the harbours few. Keeping nine tons of wooden boat afloat and pointing in the right direction was a challenge, a constant worry. Now I miss it with all my heart.
1. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
A book that captures as well any the spirit of open-hearted venturing. The 19-year old Lee leaves his Gloucestershire home on foot, with a tent, a violin, a few clothes and some biscuits. He walks first through southern England, then through Spain. He is hot, hungry, destitute and lonely. His account, written years later, is coated with longing and bittersweet loss. It tells of real hardship, and real joy.
2. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Autobiography with a surfboard. Finnegan charts with disarming candour his footloose years of travelling, reading, travelling, writing – and always searching for waves. He was the first to find many breaks in the Pacific, and he writes as he surfs – with flair, energy and courage.
3. Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings by Jonathan Raban
Few can craft a sentence like Raban, and there are few better travelogues of the 20th century than his three waterborne books – Coasting, Old Glory and Passage to Juneau. In each one he sets off on a different boat with undisguised nervousness to produce a narrative of electrifying prose. Sailing to Juneau in Alaska from his home in Seattle is a proper nautical adventure, with fearsome episodes – winds and tides and fog – and a calamitous finale that has nothing to do with the elements.
4. Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard
A lovely, crazy, crackling fireball of a book. Alone in a glass-fronted house in the far north-west of the US, Dillard thinks and muses and celebrates the gift of each morning. “Every day is a god,” she opens, but tinges her account with the random cruelty of existence, its “salt”. Two years she spent there and her brief searing record is the story of a spiritual adventure and one in prose. Both spin off towards the inexpressible, and sometimes the nonsensical.
5. The Kick: A Life Among Writers by Richard Murphy
Irish poet Murphy led an adventurous life that ended in 2018 in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. For many years he lived on the west coast of Ireland. With limited knowledge of sailing he took paying guests out on his own traditional sailing boat, a restored Galway hooker. He also bought an uninhabited island. The blend of perilous waters, west coast life and Murphy’s accounts of visiting fellow poets Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Theodore Roethke combine 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 talented musician. She planned a career as a professional pianist, but in her early 20s she contracted an infection in her hands that prevented it. She decided then to go to Scotland, to learn Gaelic and collect traditional songs. She did exactly that – and died on the isle of Canna at the age of 101. Her autobiography and her Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist brilliantly capture the twilight world of the Hebrides in the 20th century.
7. Dersu the Trapper by VK Arseniev
Between 1902 and 1930, Vladimir Arseniev led many scientific and mapping expeditions into the Siberian wilderness. Full of a naturalist’s enthusiasms and the very real dangers of the taiga (snow forest), his memoir is tough and charming and driven by the deeply moving story of his friendship with Dersu of the Gold tribe. Made into a wonderful film, Dersu Uzala, directed by Akira Kurosawa.
8. Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamorna Ash
A beautiful account of immersion in an alien world – the tightly bound fishing community of Newlyn in the far west of Cornwall. Spending weeks with fishermen on small fishing boats, and amid their equally turbulent shore life, Ash offers a sharp and poignant portrait of men living an intense and peripheral existence.
9. The Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator translated by Gerard McNamara
An Odyssey-like voyage, a mythical adventure through the western ocean – visiting such imaginary landfalls as the islands of fat sheep, of plenty, and the one hidden by a curtain of gold. A thin gloss of Christian detail covers a much older oral tale, told and retold over countless centuries, an elemental quest from somewhere deep in our storytelling past. It is allegory at its weirdest, with a dreamy, hypnotic appeal. Early translations from the Irish have been found in many languages and it was a hugely popular story in medieval Europe.
10. Red Dust by Ma Jian
In the early 1980s, Ma Jian was a dissident artist in Beijing, attracting more and more interest from the authorities. To avoid arrest, he took to the road and spent three years travelling around China. Picaresque, tense and brilliantly written, it offers an unrivalled view of China from the inside.
The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden is published by Granta. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.