The best books to understand the high north

Why am I passionate about this?

There’s nothing like personal experience. You have to read the literature, it’s true. That’s how we’ve all met here at Shepherd. But you have to roll up your sleeves and get down to visiting, too, if you want to write about travel. I first approached the Arctic in 1991 and I return above sixty degrees north every year, although I must confess to a secret advantage; I married a Finn. We spend summers at a little cabin north of Helsinki. I know the region personally, I keep coming back, and I invite you, whenever you can, to come up and join us!


I wrote...

Out in the Cold: Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada

By Bill Murray,

Book cover of Out in the Cold: Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada

What is my book about?

With a light touch, wry analysis, and remarkable depth of reportage, Bill Murray weaves high adventure with practical science and absorbing history, taking the pulse of an under-explored, fragile region on the precipice of change. By turns, evocative, astonishing, and always a jolly good ride, Out in the Cold is a sprawling and rewarding tour of the Atlantic northlands today. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Independent People

Bill Murray Why did I love this book?

Iceland is one of the first off-the-beaten-track places I visited as an aspiring young travel writer and I arrived with the onset of the first Gulf War - the one against Saddam Hussein.

I visited with three other people. We immediately met a man in Reykjavik who introduced us to his diplomat friend, and before it was all said and done we spent most of that trip with the Icelander and the Frenchman in front of a much more rudimentary CNN, watching the war.

While I’ve been back to Iceland a number of times since, that first trip, the instant friendships, and the very odd experience of watching war in the desert from up at the Arctic Circle, sealed the deal for me about visiting the far north, and indirectly led to my own later book.

Halldor Laxness is the greatest of Icelandic authors and Independent People is very nearly a perfect book about the character of a people.

First published in 1934, Independent People tells the imagined story of a man who, if not exactly master of his own destiny, was determined to be independent, and whose cussed and very persistent spirit would not be denied.

Bjartur Jonsson doesn’t make a lot of the right decisions, and he sure doesn’t make it easy on himself, but reading his tale is pure entertainment.

I like to imagine Independent People as showing the blind determination that it must take to make a living out between the volcanoes, under the drifting snow.

By Halldor Laxness,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Independent People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in Iceland, this story is imbued with the lyrical force of medieval ballads and Nordic myth.


Book cover of A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940

Bill Murray Why did I love this book?

“Helsinki, 10:30 a.m., November 30, 1939. Soviet bombers drop from a cloud bank to unload their bombs on the capital city of Finland.

In the weeks to come the world will watch admiringly as the tiny army of a small Baltic republic wages the kind of war that inspires legends against the invading military might of the Soviet Union.”  

The Winter War between Finland and Russia flies under the radar of most general readers mainly because Finland, alone up in a cold, dark corner of Europe, got almost no help, so that its five million people had to face the mighty Red Army on its own.

It was a different kind of war, with undermanned Finnish soldiers on skis using unorthodox guerrilla tactics on in unimaginably difficult Arctic fighting conditions.

Trotter overlays a  thorough understanding of the conflict on the hard realities of the far north for a description that takes the reader straight to the front lines. 

Published in 1991, A Frozen Hell is a straightforward, authoritative account of a remarkable chapter in the twentieth century’s greatest conflict. 

By William Trotter,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Frozen Hell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Masterfully recreates all the heroism, tragedy and drama of a campaign whose lessons deserve far more attention." —General James R. Galvin, former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe

In 1939, tiny Finland waged war-the kind of war that spawns legends-against the mighty Soviet Union, and yet their epic struggle has been largely ignored. Guerrillas on skis, heroic single-handed attacks on tanks, unfathomable endurance, and the charismatic leadership of one of this century's true military geniuses-these are the elements of both the Finnish victory and a gripping tale of war.


Book cover of The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth

Bill Murray Why did I love this book?

I admire Ben Rawlence for his immersion in his subject. In previous books he reported from a refugee camp on the Kenya/Somalia border and from strife-ridden eastern Congo.

Here, he roams right across the high north, assessing the gamut of issues confronting a fast-changing north. Not all the change is dire: he quotes Kenneth Høegh, an agronomist, on the novelty of trees.

“Growing up in Greenland, trees were kind of exotic, strange,” as he describes for us Høegh’s project of foresting his island. 

With chapters on the changing forest, animals wild and domestic, the changing climate, and issues and opportunities it presents, The Treeline shows us that planetary change presses forward every bit as much in the high north as down here where most of us live.

By Ben Rawlence,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Treeline as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A ground-breaking and beautifully written investigation into the Arctic Treeline with an urgent environmental message.

'Evocative, wise and unflinching' Jay Griffiths, author of Wild

The Arctic treeline is the frontline of climate change, where the trees have been creeping towards the pole for fifty years already.

Scientists are only just beginning to understand the astonishing significance of these northern forests for all life on Earth. At the treeline, Rawlence witnesses the accelerating impact of climate change and the devastating legacies of colonialism and capitalism. But he also finds reasons for hope. Humans are creatures of the forest; we have always…


Book cover of The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga

Bill Murray Why did I love this book?

This is through and through simply a gorgeous little book.

I enjoyed rereading it for this article. The largest body of fresh water on earth is Lake Baikal, not far east of Irkutsk in Siberia.

(If you’ve never heard of Baikal, that’s a measure of the variety of wonders to be found in the high north. Baikal holds so much water because it’s so deep: the world’s deepest at more than 5300 feet). If you ever have the opportunity you must visit.

My wife and I have traveled together a good bit, and I don’t feel we’re cloistered in any way, but to turn up in the ramshackle town of Listvyanka, Russia, at the beginning of this century, and then to charter a small boat to cross Baikal made me feel, I don’t know, maybe like Dorothy in the Emerald City.

I was just a total alien in a place I definitely wasn’t from. Tesson, with his steadying stash of books, stayed alone in a roughly ten-foot square cabin near Baikal for several months from February 2010.

He chopped wood, fed his stove, climbed mountains, visited the ‘neighbors’ (none of whom were close), fished, and observed wildlife, and this book, the story of his time there, is a beauty to behold.

By Sylvain Tesson, Linda Coverdale (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Consolations of the Forest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sylvain Tesson, found a radical solution to his need for freedom, one as ancient as the experiences of the hermits of old Russia: he decided to lock himself alone in a cabin in the middle taiga, on the shores of Baikal, for six months. Noting carefully his impressions of the silence, Sylvain Tesson shares with us an extraordinary experience.


Book cover of Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

Bill Murray Why did I love this book?

Barry Lopez was a nature writer and environmentalist.

He died on Christmas day 2020, and although we are fortunate to have his valedictory book Horizon, published when his traveling days were pretty well behind him, Arctic Dreams is the real deal, with Lopez as raconteur, but practitioner too, thoroughly in his element.

Lopez writes about exploration and the aurora, animals and the weather, ice and myth and survival and joy. He’s effortless. You’ll learn more than you knew there was to know about the high north, and the pleasure is in the learning.

If you must cut to the chase with these five books, Arctic Dreams is the book, because Barry Lopez got things right.

By Barry Lopez,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Arctic Dreams as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

**AS HEARD ON BBC RADIO 4**

'A master nature writer' (New York Times) provides the ultimate natural, social and cultural history of the Arctic landscape.

The author of Horizon's classic work explores the Arctic landscape and the hold it continues to exert on our imagination.

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY ROBERT MACFARLANE

Lopez's journey across our frozen planet is a celebration of the Arctic in all its guises. A hostile landscape of ice, freezing oceans and dazzling skyscapes. Home to millions of diverse animals and people. The stage to massive migrations by land, sea and air. The setting of epic exploratory…


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Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

By Jim Brown,

Book cover of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

Jim Brown Author Of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I have spent my entire professional life quietly patrolling the frontiers of understanding human consciousness. I was an early adopter in the burgeoning field of biofeedback, then neurofeedback and neuroscience, plus theory and practices of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, plus steeping myself in systems theory as a context for all these other fields of focus. I hold a MS in psychology from San Francisco State University and a PhD from Saybrook Institute. I live in Mount Shasta CA with Molly, my life partner for over 60 years. We have two sons and two grandchildren.

Jim's book list on brain, mind, and consciousness

What is my book about?

In this thoroughly researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development.

He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind.

Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through lifelong brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.

Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

By Jim Brown,

What is this book about?

In this thoroughly-researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development. He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to truly engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind. Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through life-long brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.


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