The best books on people living unusual, adventurous or alternative lives

The Books I Picked & Why

Into the Wild

By Jon Krakauer

Book cover of Into the Wild

Why this book?

Most of us contemplate a deeper meaning of life at some point in our lives, particularly as we get older. I was no different, and neither was Chris McCandless, the focus of this incredible book. Leaving a comfortable, somewhat privileged life behind him, Chris abandoned his car and trekked off into the Alaskan wilderness, seeking adventure and self-discovery. Chris had the guts to do what I, and many others, wouldn’t, and as we share his new life in the wild we touch on life’s bigger questions – purpose, meaning, and philosophy among them – in ways that many other books don’t. Despite the sad ending, this is an inspiring read and one of my all-time favourites. Forget the film – read the book.

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Across The Dark Continent Bicycle Diaries from Africa 1931-1936

By Kazimierz Nowak

Book cover of Across The Dark Continent Bicycle Diaries from Africa 1931-1936

Why this book?

I’ve long been fascinated with travelers and explorers, the wonder of the unknown, and how we push ourselves to our limits, and because of my own work I have a particular interest in how some of the earliest explorers stepped into the unknown to make their way through the African continent. I thought I’d read it all, but recently came across an incredible Polish explorer by the name of Kazimierz Nowak. Poland is hardly known for its explorers, but Kazimierz has the most incredible stories to tell as he cycled and pushed his bicycle across Africa.

Wonderful stories of a time consigned to history, accompanied by some brilliant photographs of the places he and his bike ended up – not to mention plenty of punctures! - make for a lovely read. Forget Stanley and Livingstone for a while. For me, this is the most unusual and memorable example of how to live an adventurous, curious life. How had I never heard of this guy before?

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The Green Mile: The Complete Serial Novel

By Stephen King

Book cover of The Green Mile: The Complete Serial Novel

Why this book?

This might seem like a strange choice to include in my list of books, but hear me out. From a very young age I’ve been hypersensitive. A concern for others, and suffering in the world, led me to a career in international development. I wanted to learn more about the world, why it was so unequal, and why – so much of the time – it seemed so cruel. John Coffey, the central character in the book, suffered from a high degree of hypersensitivity, and he tried putting an unusual natural gift for helping others to work in a powerful yet unusual way. We might prefer to use the word ‘empathy’ these days to describe how he felt, something many caring people have in spades.

This is the only fiction book on my list, but its message is, to me, as powerful as any true story, perhaps even more. What do we do when we see so much wrong in the world? Do we take it head-on, or give up on it? How do we cope when the suffering of others becomes simply too intolerable to us?

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The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

By Michael Finkel

Book cover of The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

Why this book?

The very idea that someone could abandon modern life and live for so long in the middle of a wood in Maine, in the USA, for close to 30 years, without being found, I find incredible. What Christopher Knight decided to do here isn’t a million miles from Chris McCandless in my earlier book recommendation, but he lasted a lot longer and was undoubtedly more successful. It takes a very special kind of person to become a true hermit, but at some time in our lives, almost all of us will wonder what it’s like to disappear, just to leave everything behind and live the most simplest and natural of lives. Christopher may well not be the last hermit – we’ll never know how many are out there, if we’re honest – but what he achieved makes for fascinating reading, a chance to taste what this sort of mystical life might be like without having to leave the comfort of our own armchairs. 

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The Fatal Shore

By Robert Hughes

Book cover of The Fatal Shore

Why this book?

I thought I’d finish my list with something a little different. Everyone else in the books I’ve chosen made some kind of personal decision to take their life in a different direction, but the people in this last book didn’t. The Fatal Shore is about the earliest convicts, banished to Australia to start new lives in unfamiliar, hostile territory. The first chapter alone is fascinating, documenting peoples from a ‘civilised’ part of the world struggling for survival while aboriginal ‘savages’ thrived. It’s more than just a story of survival in a new world, but also a fantastic example of where we went wrong, turning our backs and our noses up to indigenous knowledge in the assumption that we know best. This book is a brilliant example of where Western civilisation went wrong, and how dangerous assumptions can be. 

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