Digital media continued its march across the cultural landscape in the past decade, but its proliferation didnt diminish the importance of bookseven if these days were thumbing through real pages less often than were swiping pixels on our screens. Books challenge our perceptions and paradigms, provoke curiosity, and inspire action. And for many of us, engaging with big ideas felt more important during this decade than ever before.
In that spirit, here are tenbooks from the past ten years that sparked debate, changed discourse, and spawned movements in the outdoor world. These stories made us marvel at the seemingly impossible limits of the human body and feel enthralled with the wonders of nature. They mobilized us to stand up against environmental injustice, taught us about climate change, and inspired us to take our ideas out into the world. Weve alsomatched each book with recommended reading from the same genre or subject area.
The Forest Unseen: A Years Watch in Nature by David George Haskell (2012)
Biologist David George Haskell is like the nature aficionados Malcolm Gladwell: he has a knack for getting geeky about the outdoors in a way that brings the rest of us along for the ride. In his debut book, Haskell waxespoetic about a year spent surveying a small plot of Tennessee old-growth forest as it weathersthe seasons, using a tiny square of forest to explore much larger observations about the workings of the natural world. Blending literary finesse with scientific know-how, The Forest Unseeninjectsmuch-needed vibrancy into the stuffy world of nature writingand was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, to boot.
- Pair Haskells more recent bookThe Songs of Trees: Stories from Natures Great Connectors(2017)with forester Peter Wohllebens The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate(2016) for a fascinating tumble down an arboreal rabbit hole. Once youre finished, sink into The Overstory(2018), Richard Powers Pulitzer-winning novel that follows a motley crew of people who become just as intertwined with one another as they are with the trees and forests they tend. (By the end, the trees themselves feel like central characters.)
- In What a Plant Knows, renowned scientist Daniel Chamovitz makes the case that our leafy pals are much more complex than we assume. Similarly, in What the Robin Knows, naturalist Jon Young contends that the only tweets that truly matter are those that emanate from birds.
- Of course, Indigenous people have been conversing with nature since time immemorial. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013), botanist and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer (a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation) shares ancestral knowledge to help decode the languages of the natural world.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed(2012)
Celebrating the Heroines Journey
Two camps seemed to emerge when Wild was published: one criticized Cheryl Strayed for not digging deeply enough into the nitty-gritty of backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail; the other understood the book to be mostly about Strayeds personal transformation and was less concerned about the backpacking technicalities.Wild has inspired countless people of all genders to hit the dirt in search of adventure and self-discovery. It also cultivated a mainstream audiences desire for more narratives centered on womens experiences outdoorsand storiesin generalabout the internal journeys we experience in wild places.
- Just before Wild dominated literary adventure discourse, journalist and Outside contributor Tracy Ross published The Source of All Things (2011). Its an unflinching account of how the wilderness helped her to not just copebut thriveas she confronted the lasting effects of childhood sexual abuse.
- The gorgeous prose of dogsledder and Outside columnist Blair Bravermans Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube(2016) will sock you straight in the gutas will the story line about the arctic alchemy that helped the author transform trauma into courage.
- Climber Jan Redfords End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood(2018) contains plenty of dashing detail about her decades in the Canadian alpine whileserving up some real talk: adventure isnt always the cure-all we wish it to be.
- In Running Home(2019),OutsidecontributorKatie Arnold traces her parallel journeys as an elite ultrarunner and a bereaved daughter fighting through a fog of grief and anxiety after her fathers death.
- Carrot Quinn is kind of like the Patti Smith of long-distance hiking: a sensual punk-rock poet who unveils both the mystique and minutiae of trekking in her self-published memoir, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart(2015).
The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors by James Edward Mills (2014)
When multimedia journalist James Edward Mills followed the members of Expedition Denali during their push on the famed Alaskan peak in 2013, he knew he would document something special. After all, it was the first summit of Denali by a team of entirely African American climbers. But Mills took The Adventure Gap beyond the scope of a traditional expedition narrative, exploring the reasons for the glaring outdoor cultural divide and noting that bridging that gap would help people and the planet. Once published, the book ignited a firestorm of productive conversations about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the outdoor adventure world.
- Historian Dianne D. Glaves Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage(2010) is a sweeping takedown of the false notion that the black experience hasnt always been deeply connected to the landand to the idea of protecting it.
- In Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors(2014), writer and educator Carolyn Finney trains her equally critical eye on the same subjectwhile digging into the painful reasons why African Americans were historically underrepresented in outdoor culture.
- Weaving together scholarship and memoir, Lauret Savoys Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape(2015) is about the Mount Holyoke professors relationship with American landscapes. It also explores the myriad ways humans have shapedand been shaped bythe natural world throughout history.
- Professor and ornithologist J. Drew Lantham long found solace and belonging in wild spaces, whether or not society believed it. He explores that dichotomyin The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Mans Love Affair with Nature(2016).
- In An American Sunrise(2019), U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjos new collection of work, the member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation writes of the resilience that binds generations of Muscogee to the ancestral lands from which they were once expelled.
Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvationby Dan Fagin (2013)
Fighting for Environmental Justice
When a Swiss chemical company arrived in Toms River, New Jersey, in 1952, itpromised the small township an influx of jobs. In the decades that followed, the company left the town with a legacy of contamination. When an alarming number of children received cancer diagnoses, investigative reporter Dan Fagin joined residents in searching for whoor whatwas to blame. The richly detailed account, which earned the author a Pulitzer Prize, didnt land on any hard findings. But it has become a benchmark for reporting the compelling, David and Goliath environmental justice stories that continue to play out across the country, such as in the water crisis of Flint, Michigan, or the Standing Rock Siouxs battle against the Dakota Access pipeline. Toms River may soon appear on the silver screen:Danny DeVitos production company, which helped bring Erin Brockovich to theaters, optioned the film rights earlier this year.
- Journalist Judy Pasternak exposes the damagingeffects of the uranium industryinYellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed(2010),detailing decades of exploitativemining in the Four Corners region that harmed humans and the environment.
- InRiver of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster(2018), Jonathan P. Thompson digs into a long history that led to a 2015 environmental disaster that turned Colorados Animas River orange with toxic sludge.
- Slick Water: Fracking and One Insiders Stand Against the Worlds Most Powerful Industry(2015), by investigative reporter Andrew Nikiforuk, tells the story of one womans fight against the environmentally destructive practice while delving into the industrys insidious history. Pair this book with Eliza Griswolds Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America(2018) for a complex look at how energy policy shapes rural American life.
- Inspired by his experience as a water protector at Standing Rock, Nick Estes, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, uses the ongoing fight against the Dakota Access pipeline to present an intergenerational view of Indigenous protest in Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline(2019). Dina Gilio-Whittaker, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, documents centuries of resistance in As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock(2019).
- For a book that is more pensive than historical, venture south with former Border Patrol agent Francisco Cant in his gorgeous debut, The Line Becomes a River(2018). Its as much a poetic meditation on the people and landscape of the borderlands as it is an examination of our ownimperfect human nature.
Wave: Life and Memories After the Tsunamiby Sonali Deraniyagala(2013)
The Aftermath of Natural Disasters
On December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami that would claim the lives of roughly a quarter-million people. Those losses included the husband, children, and parents of Sri Lankan economist Sonali Deraniyagala, whose account of the incomprehensible tragedy is an excruciating read. While most of us watched the news with a detached mixture of horror and fascination, Deraniyagala drags readers right into the undertow of her grief; we cant look away, nor should we. While natural disasters are often chronicled in scientific and sensational tones, Wave rightly humanizes an outsized tragedy.
- A fictional account of an all-too-real natural disaster, novelist Jesmyn Wards Salvage the Bones (2011) tracks a family on Mississippis Gulf Coast before, during, and after Hurricane Katrinas rampage. It is no less moving for being fiction, especially given that the author experienced the storms devastation firsthand.
- Former firefighter and Outsidecontributor Kyle Dickman brings similarly personal insight to On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It(2015), deftly weaving together the history of wildland firefighting, an account of the devastating Yarnell Hill Fire, and portraits of those who lost their lives trying to stop the flames. Michael Kodas, a onetime seasonal firefighter, looks at that same wildfire and others in Land on Fire: The New Reality of Wildfire in the West(2017), which analyzes the human and environmental cost of these catastrophic infernos.
- In Quakeland: On the Road to Americas Next Devastating Earthquake(2017), journalist andOutside contributorKathryn Miles travels the country to learn from those on the frontline of seismic events. In The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet(2017), reporter Henry Fountain recounts the gripping story of a magnitude 9.2 earthquake that rocked southern Alaska in 1964, focusing on the efforts of noted seismologist George Plafker to understand what prompted the violent temblor.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural Historyby Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
Inspiring Conservations New Wave
The title of Elizabeth Kolberts Pulitzer-winning bookreferences the undeniable fact that our planet is well into its sixth wave of mass die-offs, a canaryor, more accurately, a snow leopardin the coal mine for whats to come. Drawing on the work of scientists she encounters while reporting across this rapidly changing world, the environmental journalist contends that at this stage of the Anthropocene (the era in which humankind left an indelible and perhaps irreversible mark on the landscape), its pretty much all our fault. While thats a sobering pill to swallow, Kolbert does throw us a sliver of bone: the clocks ticking, but it hasnt yet stopped.
Carrying a torch lit decades ago by Rachel Carsons groundbreaking Silent Spring, Kolbert unmasks the gritty truth about our role in the ongoing destruction of nature and asks a question echoed by all of the recommended works below: what are we going to do about it?
- If youre convinced that tackling unwieldy issues like mass extinctionis beyond the power of one person, pick up Stronghold: One Mans Quest to Save the Worlds Wild Salmon(2019). Author Tucker Malarkeys globe-trotting tale of a fly-fisherman trying to prevent endangered Pacific Rim salmon from going the way of the dodo is sure to inspire.
- For a more lyrical kick in the pants, check out author and activist Terry Tempest Williams new collection, Erosion: Essays of Undoing(2019). Its an urgent call to action wrapped in notions of community and tied with a big bow of hope.
- Continuing a tradition launched with Cadillac Desertback in 1986, The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow(2013), by environmental scientists B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, traces the arc of history in order to ask hard questions about the future.
- With a more colorful take on our most precious commodity, David Owen details a rather entertaining journey along the arm of the Wests most famous waterway in Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River(2017). Outside contributor Heather Hansman paddles the Colorados largest tributary in Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West(2019)and takes a nuanced look at why water rights are so contentious.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seenby Christopher McDougall (2009)
Pushing Human Limits
Journalist and runner Christopher McDougall traveled to Mexicos Copper Canyon in search of the secret to an injury-free stride. He soon became convinced that the secret wasnt a matter of improving his form, but of converting to a more minimalist style of footwear favored by the runners of the Tarahumara tribe, who log ultra distances in nothing more than a pair of thin sandals. While Born to Run ignited the barefoot running craze that reverberated in athletic shoe design for years after it published, the real reason we stretched the timeline to include it here is because McDougalls book helped to launcha collective obsession with long-haul runningand the limits of physical endurance.
- Dig into the science behind athletic potentialwith Outside columnist and former physicist Alex Hutchinsons Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance(2018). Onetime Appalachian Trail record-holder Jennifer Pharr Davis takes a more anecdotal approach to the subject in The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience(2018). The book delves into the technical details of the authors FKT attemptand profiles others who have pushed themselves to new limits on foot.
- If memoir is your thing, try to keep up with alpine runner Kilian Jornet as he summits peaks and chews through trails at breakneck speed in Run or Die(2011). For a more relatable tale, settle in with Mirna Valerios A Beautiful Work in Progress(2017), a stereotype-busting jaunt through the authors journey as an unlikely ultrarunner. In Thirst: 2,600 Miles to Home(2019), thru-hiker Heather Anish Anderson chronicles the physical and emotional toll that comes with smashing records on the Pacific Crest Trail. In the vertical realm, Tommy Caldwells The Push: A Climbers Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits(2017) offers a fascinating study in perseverance.
- For a water-based endurance story, cozy up with The Pacific Alone: The Untold Story of Kayakings Boldest Voyage(2018), journalist Dave Shivelys account of paddler Ed Gillets groundbreaking 1987 solo sea-kayak crossing from the California coast to Maui.
The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorderby Richard Louv (2011)
Plugging into Nature
When prolific author Richard Louv dropped Last Child in the Woodsin 2005, he proposed a then-groundbreaking idea that modern kids suffer from nature-deficit disorder. In The Nature Principle, Louv extends that revelation to adultsimploring us to deepen our relationship with the natural world as a means to improve our existence and ensure our survival. Chances are youll see one of Louvs books name-checked whenever someone connects the dots between human health and the natural world.
- Cited nearly as often as Louvs works, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative(2017) by journalist and Oustidecontributor Florence Williams explores the therapeutic benefits of spending time among trees.
- In The Biophilia Effect: A Scientific and Spiritual Exploration of the Healing Bond Between Humans and Nature(2018), biologist Clemens G. Arvay explores the titular phenomenon, first coined by entomologist E.O. Wilson, which posits that connecting with nature is an important part of our long-term evolution.
- If theres anyone who understands the magic of time spent under arboreal canopies, its Qing Li, the Japanese doctor who helped spread the gospel of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) around the world. Lis book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness(2018), is a joyful guide to demystifying the practice.
- Artist and writer Jenny Odells How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy(2019) is part cultural critique, part path to empowerment. In a world where the reach of capitalisms digital arm seems to cultivate more anxiety with each pinged notification, Odell argues that we are drawn further away from more important connections with the natural world around us, with each other, and with ourselves.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climateby Naomi Klein (2014)
Sounding the Climate Change Alarm
Al Gore is often credited for raising the collective consciousness about global warming in 2006 with An Inconvenient Truth,but the former vice presidents book and subsequent film were just the tip of the proverbial, rapidly melting iceberg. Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein doubled down with the fiery and polarizing This Changes Everything, a book that proposes well never right the climate ship if we continue clinging to the very framework thats sinking it: capitalism. Kleins vision of environmental liberation requires detaching ourselves from the sticky grip of fossil fuelsand envisions a collective effort far beyond switching to stainless-steel straws. Of course, we still have a long way to go.
- Author and activist Bill McKibben has been talking climate since Al Gore was still serving as a senator from Tennessee in the late 1980s. McKibbens newest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?(2019), reflects on how little weve moved the needlebut offers hope that, with concerted effort, we still can. In The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming(2019), journalist David Wallace-Wells comes to a more dystopian conclusion.
- Pulitzer finalist Elizabeth Rushs Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore (2018) is certainly devastating, but her elegant writing on the impact of rising seas will keep you reading until the end.
Enginering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight Over Controlling Natureby Jordan Fisher Smith (2016)
Unearthing Natures Seedy Underbelly
When a young man named Harry Walker was fatally mauled by a Yellowstone grizzly in 1972, his family sued the National Park Service. Former ranger Jordan Fisher Smith uses this incident to seduce the reader with a public lands parable masquerading as a wildly entertaining thriller. Along the way, he exposes a lengthy history of criminal mismanagement that left peopleand far more bearsdead in its wake. While our endless appetite for the nasty business of true crime likely stretches back for time eternal, Engineering Eden proved that the natural world proves just as compelling a backdrop as a serial killers den for the devious hand of man.
- In Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI(2017), David Grann investigates the heartbreaking oil-related murders of landowning members of the Osage tribe in 1920s Oklahoma. Fellow journalist and Outsidecontributor Annette McGivney similarly dissects the truth behind the stabbing death of Grand Canyon hiker Tomomi Hanamure in Pure Land: A Story of Three Lives, Two Cultures, and the Search for Heaven on Earth(2018). The author becomes part of the narrative when her reportage unleashes her own repressed childhood trauma.
- For something more whimsical, settle in with The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century (2018), angler and author Kirk Wallace Johnsons engrossing tale of a fly-fishing museum caper. And leave room for The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the Worlds Most Expensive Fungus(2019), a fascinating expos of the most expensive and sought-after fungus among us by investigative journalist Ryan Jacobs.
- Finally, make all your CSI: Outdoors fantasies come true with forensic ecologist Patricia Wiltshires The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a Trace(2019), where fungal spores and pollen play Watson to the authors Holmes.