10. Robinson Crusoe
Most of us know what Robinson Crusoe is about, and maybe it was even part of your English classes back in high school. But if it wasn’t … have you read it?
First published in April of 1719, Daniel Defoe’s classic tale of human endurance is about the title character, a man (a bit of a spoiled Englishman) survives a shipwreck with little more than a knife, a couple of animals, and tobacco. He will end up spending 28 years of his life on the island, learning how to survive, and of course, undergoes transformations about his beliefs. Robinson Crusoe is considered to be the beginning of “realistic fiction” as a reading genre, and one of the earliest novels in the English language.
It is generally believed that Defoe got inspiration for his story from the real-life story of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned alone on Más a Tierra off the Chilean coast from 1704-1709. Selkirk had actually been serving aboard a ship called the Cinque Ports, and had had a dispute with the ship’s captain about the ship’s seaworthiness and asked to be left at the island. (Selkirk turned out to be correct, by the way.) Selkirk spent those years alone before being rescued by a privateer.
9. Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space
In February 2003, the world watched in shock as the Columbia disintegrated on its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, reminding us of the intense dangers of space travel and exploration.
Lost in the aftermath of the news and the indefinite suspension of the shuttle program was the fact that three astronauts – Donald Pettit (U.S.), Kenneth Bowersox (U.S.), and Nikolai Budarin (Russia) were still aboard the International Space Station for a routine mission — and now with the shuttle program on hold, how were they to get home?
In Too Far From Home, Chris Jones tells the story of the U.S. and Russian space agencies working together to find a way home — a solution that is practically straight out of the movies.
If Too Far From Home is the real-life story, then Gravity is the Oscar-winning version of a similar tale: two astronauts are on a spacewalk when disaster strikes: Russia uses a missile to destroy a defunct satellite, and it accidentally causes a chain reaction as the scattered debris strikes and destroys both their shuttle and the Hubble Telescope, which they had been servicing. They manage to make it to the International Space Station, but find out their possible escape pod is unusable. This heart-pounding adventure will have you breathless and on the edge of the seat as you follow mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her attempts to get home to Earth after an intense crisis in space.
7. Between a Rock and a Hard Place
What would you do to survive?
Aron Ralston had to ask himself that after he had hiked into the Utah canyonlands alone, and a falling boulder pinned his right hand and wrist against a slot canyon wall. Ralston had broken the cardinal rule of solo adventurists: always tell somebody where you’re going, and when you’ll be back. So now he was unable to free himself, nobody knew where he was, and he would likely die of dehydration before anyone found him.
So he did what few of us could imagine doing: he cut off his own forearm in order to be able to survive. His story was eventually made into the movie, 127 Hours, starring James Franco and directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire).
6. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
In May 1943, Lieutenant Louis Zamperini of the Army Air Forces and two other men survived the crash of their bomber, thousands of miles from civilization.
Zamperini was young and fit — just a couple years earlier, he’d been an Olympian — but he and his fellow two soldiers would endure machine gun strafing, starvation, dehydration, sharks, and a typhoon in their life boat — and that was only the beginning.
5. Island of the Lost: An Extraordinary Story of Survival at the Edge of the World
What draws the line between those who are able to survive, and those who aren’t?
In Island of the Lost, Joan Druett tells the story of two ships that wreck in early 1864 on the remote Auckland Islands archipelago, 290 miles south of New Zealand — an inhospitable cluster of islands deep in the subarctic Southern Pacific Ocean.
At opposite ends of the main island, and separated by only about twenty miles but also impassable cliffs, the crews of the Grafton (wrecked January 3, 1864) and the Invercauld (wrecked May 11, 1864) know nothing of each other’s misfortunes — but their outcomes could not be further apart. Despite Auckland Island’s miserable weather (several inches of rain per month, and temperatures ranging between the high 30s and low 60s), the Grafton crew is able to preserve discipline, build a cabin and forge, and find a way to eventually escape and rescue the remaining crew. The Invercauld crew turns upon itself, eventually leading to starvation and cannibalism — only three crew members survived to be rescued.
Two main things differentiated the two wrecks: the leadership of their respective captains, and the resources the crews were able to salvage from their ships. Island of the Lost is a solid illustration of the best and worst of man facing survival.
4. Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival
In 1985, two men, Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, successfully attempted the previously unclimbed West Face of Peru’s Siula Grande. As they were descending back to base camp, connected by only 150 feet of line, Simpson fell and shattered his right leg. Yates did what he could to try to lower his friend to base camp, but when Simpson fell again, the exhausted Yates cut the rope, which dropped Simpson into a crevasse. Thinking his friend now dead, Yates eventually made his way back to base camp.
But Simpson wasn’t dead — although his right leg was useless. Through sheer willpower, he managed to pull himself out of the crevasse, and eventually, to survival. Touching the Void tells their story – or you can watch the 2012 movie which recreates their ordeal.
3. Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration
Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Ernest Shackleton’s famous expedition to the Antarctic aboard the Endurance. But much lesser known is the story of Douglas Mawson, who led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1912-13, two years before Shackleton’s doomed expedition.
Mawson’s group wasn’t after South Pole glory, which is perhaps why their story has gotten lost under the shadow of the Endurance. Instead, he was leading a group making scientific observations about the continent. Mawson finds himself far from base camp, his two companions dead, his supplies minimal. Alone on the Ice tells the story of his month-long survival trek back to camp, as well as details of other Antarctic explorations of the time.
2. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
One of the greatest tales of survival of all time: Endurance tells the saga of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica. Their original plan was to cross the continent on foot; but only a day away from reaching land after sailing through pack ice, the ship became locked in the ice, and the crew lived aboard as the ship drifted with the ice pack.
The Endurance would be eventually crushed in the ice, and Shackleton and his 27 men would camp aboard an ice floe, in hopes of eventually drifting towards Paulet Island, where stores were cached, 250 miles away. Mother Nature had other plans, and Shackleton and his crew were finally able to gain land at Elephant Island, after spending nearly 500 days between the ship and crossing the ice.
From there, Shackleton and five of his men undertook a perilous journey across open seas in a modified lifeboat to reach South Georgia Island, where they would get help to rescue the rest of the crew.
1. The Martian
Every so often, a book comes along that’s absolutely brilliant, and it gets made into a movie, and the movie is pretty spectacular. The Martian is one of the best to fall into both these categories.
Andy Weir’s meticulously researched novel is an incredible read, telling the story of astronaut Mark Watney, who gets inadvertently stranded on Mars when his fellow crew think he’s dead after an accident forces an emergency evacuation, how he survives, and how he eventually gets home. It is a fantastic story, and even if you don’t consider yourself a “fan” of science fiction, there is much more here about the strength of the human condition than the “sci-fi” part of the story.
In 2015, The Martian became a movie starring Matt Damon as the title character, and was so well-received that it received dozens of award nominations. Directed by Ridley Scott, it was filmed in the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan, which stood in for the surface of Mars.