This site contains the entries from David H. Stam’s ten “anthologies”—annotated bibliographies and selections from books, periodicals and manuscripts of the past five hundred years—attempting to answer the question, “What did the explorers read?” His preface to the Anthology of the Antarctic Reading Experience (below) explains the origins of the project.

An Anthology of the Antarctic Reading Experience, 1800 to 2014: How did they Cope?

A Personal Preface

 In June of 2000 the Polar Libraries Colloquy, a congenial group of librarians responsible for polar collections throughout the world, met in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for its 19th biennial conference. My wife Deirdre Stam and I attended and signed up for the post-conference tour to Churchill, Manitoba, half way north on the western shore of Hudson Bay, joining six others to make a knowledgeable and entertaining group.

The thousand-mile train journey, first by Canadian National Railroad, through the lush farmland of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, to La Pas, and then by the Hudson Bay Railroad heading northeast through muskeg forest into increasingly tundra-like terrain to the Port of Churchill. Originally built to transport grain from Western Canada to the seasonal route between Churchill, the Hudson Strait, and the needy ports of the Soviet Union, the Hudson Bay Railroad was finally completed in 1929 after several fitful starts.

 Since we would be travelling through some of the terrain that Sir John Franklin covered in his two land journeys of 1819 and 1825, we took with us a copy of Franklin’s writings about those disastrous overland expeditions, a tidy hard-bound pocketbook called Journey to the Polar Sea (Köln: Könemann, 1998), ideal for train reading during the thirty-six hour trip. One passage in particular stirred my thinking:

I, therefore, issued directions to deposit at this encampment the dipping needle, azimuth compass, magnet, a large thermometer, and a few books we had carried, having torn out of these, such parts as we should require to work the observations for latitude and longitude.

Elsewhere in the book, Franklin’s fellow explorer, John Richardson, also alluded to the books they had with them on their journey:

Through the extreme kindness and forethought of a lady, the party, previous to leaving London, had been furnished with a small collection of religious books, of which we still retained two or three of the most portable, and they proved of incalculable benefit to us. We read portions of them to each other as we lay in bed, in addition to the morning and evening service, and found that they inspired us on each perusal with so strong a sense of the omnipresence of a beneficent God, that our situation, even in those wilds, appeared no longer destitute; and we conversed, not only with calmness, but with cheerfulness, detailing with unrestrained confidence the past events of our lives, and dwelling with hope on our future prospects.

Leaving aside the work of a beneficent God in the midst of the worst possible circumstances for “the man who ate his boots,” I began to wonder more broadly about what explorers read on their expeditions, how they might have used print to help them cope with ennui and boredom, to find comfort in adversity, and diversion in monotony. Thus started what is already a eighteen-year quest for instances of the reading of Arctic and Antarctic explorers, from the mere mention of an author or title, to the library catalogues of expedition collections, to more extended reflections on the reading of individual books, or more generally about the importance of reading in their lives, lives of dispiriting routine punctuated by moments of danger and terror.

From the beginning we cast a very wide bibliographical and archival net: journals, diaries, memoirs, official reports, autobiographies, biographies, printed and manuscript catalogues, anything, published or unpublished, primary or secondary, that might reveal what these explorers were reading during their travels or their doldrums. Some of the most poignant examples are comments on the unavailability of any print at all and the hardships that the absence of print could cause. The scope of the search was international, though the focus was on British, Commonwealth, and American adventurers, the most accessible literature of the subject.

At the next Polar Libraries Colloquy in June 2002 in Copenhagen, we presented a paper presenting the first fruits of these searches, a talk called “Silent Friends: the Role of Reading in Polar Exploration.”[i] We went on to deliver this and other papers on the subject, from Edinburgh to Fairbanks, from Toronto to St. Louis, from Syracuse to Washington, and it was the inspiration of the deliberate pun in the title of our 2005 Grolier Club exhibition called Books on Ice: British & American Literature of Polar Exploration, which featured both books about the ice of the polar regions, but also books that had spent time on the ice, and in the case of one book, produced at a base in Antarctica. The following compilation is a distillation of the Antarctic examples of all these searches. I decided to begin with Antarctica as the smaller and more manageable section of the ever-growing data base, postponing the Arctic for the future or for other polar students interested in this arcane pursuit.

The opening section of this compilation, “General Titles,” includes sources which cover more than one expedition, a common phenomenon for the most famous explorers—Amundsen, Byrd, Mawson, Scott, and Shackleton. Here are included biographical and autobiographical works by and about explorers who participated in multiple expeditions, apart from works about individual expeditions such as Amundsen’s book about the South Pole, or Scott’s Journals of his last expedition.

The remainder of the materials in this compendium are principally organized chronologically by expedition, headed by the date or dates of the expedition, the name of the expedition, and the names of the ships and/or explorers involved. Following the headings for each voyage are the individual titles, listed alphabetically by author, whether written by the explorer, his colleagues, or the reporters or biographers, and then quotations from those sources of relevant comments on their reading.

There are some famous expeditions for which I’ve found no material at all. I’ve nonetheless included these journeys in the chronological listing, hoping that some future cartographer of polar reading will fill in the blank spaces. Where possible I’ve tried to include a brief summary of each expedition. At the first appearance of each explorer I’ve given a brief summary of his work to place him within the context of exploration history. In Antarctica, women were in short supply as expedition leaders, until the Australians in the 1980s.

I cannot emphasize enough the ambiguity of these claims of reading experiences. One cannot be certain, to take an extreme example, that the reviewer of a work has in fact read the work he has reviewed. The possession of a book by an expedition or individual is no evidence of its having been read; claims that a given book was used to make practical decisions on an exploratory journey on the other hand, is more convincing as evidence of reading although not absolute proof. I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible in including all forms of evidence, however uncertain, from simple possession (e.g. listings in shipboard catalogues), to analytical descriptions of personal reading. That inclusiveness introduces its own questions. How many men listening to Darwin read aloud, for example, could be claimed as readers of Darwin, and how many nodded off while listening? Do these groups of individual readers, however they might have been drawn together, constitute any kind of “reading community?” What does it matter?

The compilation below is intended to help address some of these questions while providing a capsule history of Antarctic exploration and a compendium of materials on reading in Antarctica. It claims to be more provocative than definitive. With these caveats I send it forth on a journey seeking more evidence of reading in the Polar Regions.

David H. Stam                     Syracuse, New York            Winter 2019

[i] The title is stolen from Elisha Kent Kane’s best-selling Arctic Explorations (Philadelphia, PA: Childs & Peterson, 1856). The phrase appears in Volume II, p. 196: on abandoning the ship after two years iced in, Kane says that “it was hardly easier to leave some other things behind,–several of my well-tested instruments, for instance, and those silent friends, my books. They had all been packed up, hoping for a chance of saving them; and, to the credit of my comrades, let me say gratefully that they offered to exclude both clothes and food in favor of a full freight of these treasures.”


In all of the transcripts of source materials on reading I have attempted to give the material exactly as it first appeared. In each entry, there will be a page number (s), sometimes an explanatory note, and then a colon: following the colon is the entry as exactly I found it in the sources. That includes quotation marks, misspellings unless the meaning is unclear. There will be obvious exceptions such as transcripts from archival/manuscript sources that can’t be duplicated in type, as well as inadvertent mistakes. The colon is the key, but I urge users of these entries to make their own check on any sources used.

—D. H. S.