Around the world and from ancient times, mountains have always play a part in humanity’s imagination and storytelling. So it only makes sense there are thousands of books about mountains!
Mountains are the place where Gods dwell. They embody the sublime, a feeling that cannot be expressed with words. They are frightening, and challenging, and they make us want to conquer them or avoid them or look at them. They are the stage for the greatest battles, and the treasure’s and dragon’s hiding place, and the place for our next holiday. They are silent and the place to meditate.
Here are some books about mountains to reflect on all of the meanings they have.
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Top books about mountains
1. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick”.
All around the world, from Germanic to Native American mythology, we hear of magical creatures inhabiting mountains.
Throughout many folklore tales, we find dwarves living inside of mountains, or evil dragons keeping a treasure there. And about a hero that must slay them to bring peace back.
Tolkien continued this ancient legacy in his own mythology. Only, on ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R. Tolkien, the hero is unexpected. It is a hobbit.
‘The Hobbit’ is a book about mountains as they are used by Tolkien as a symbol for many things.
They are the impassable barriers (the Misty Mountains), the abode of the supreme evil (Mount Doom) and of cursed wicked men (The ghosts of the mountains whom Aragorn recruits on ‘The Two Towers’). This makes ‘The hobbit’ one of the top books about mountains.
This conception of mountains as terrifying and home for dark dwellers is in tune with what they have meant for humans for thousands of years.
Mountains were nothing but dangerous places where no man would go for pleasure (this conception only changed in the Western World in the late 19th century with the rise of modern alpinism).
Did you know? The International Astronomical Union has named every mountain in Titan (Saturn’s satellite) after the mountains imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien. That means that, in Titan, there’s a Lonely Mountain.
2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
This year marks the 200th anniversary since a group of English writers went on a holiday in the Alps that inspired wonderful literature.
Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Polidori and Mary Shelley stayed in the Diodati Mansion next to Lake Geneva and, on a summer night, set up a challenge: to invent a horror story.
While Polidori created a modern version of a vampire that would later inspire Dracula, Mary Shelley had a nightmare that same night and conceived the story of Frankenstein : a scientist who, through occult science, tries to play god by putting together body parts and giving birth to a living but damned creature.
This is a classic horror story, beautifully written and showcasing elegance and style in the narrative.
In the book, the mountains serve both as a deeply inspiring scenery for Frankenstein and as a hiding place for his damned creation. One more for our list on books about mountains!
This romanticising of the Alpine scenery makes ‘Frankenstein’ one of the most important book about mountains.
It was through this and other books that many Victorians flew to Chamonix (Switzerland), creating one of the first mass tourism phenomenon in history (more of this on the number five of this list).
3. ‘Himalaya: encounters with eternity’ by Ashvin Mehta
On this very special work on this list of books about mountains we reach sacred territories.
Many peaks at the Himalaya range are considered the dwelling of the gods, a belief shared by cultures all around the world, from ancient pagan Europeans to native Americans.
This belief is what kept sherpas from reaching the peaks on the first expedition to the Anapurna in the 1950s: they believed it was inhabited by the goddess of crops and fertility.
This first successful expedition was guided by the legendary Maurice Herzog, who provides the words for Himalaya, encounters with eternity.
Ashvin Mehta, in charge of the images, captures like a very vivid dream the atmosphere and feelings for this magical region of the world.
Born in 1931 in India, his photography of mountains might as well be called poetry.
3. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all.
The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”
Kerouac was introduced to zen and buddhist philosophies by the poet Gary Snider. From the jazzy city lights, he turned to mountaineering and hiking.
The two main characters in ‘The Dharma Bums’ are disguises for the real Kerouac and Snyder, and they search for enlightenment by climbing mountains.
Appart from hiking and watching mountains, they also gather with like-minded writers and friends, and the book gives an account on the first time the ‘Howl’ poem was presented by Allen Ginsberg.
So this is a book about mountains: an ode to the outdoors as a temple.
And an exciting account of such trips by these restless humans told through a restless narrative and prose.
4. ‘Victorians in the mountains’ by Professor Ann C. Coley
‘Victorians in the mountains’ discusses the Victorians craze for the Alps, traces its origins in literary works (like ‘Frankenstein’) and gives a comprehensive view of what writers and vacationers found on these magnificent mountains.
The notion of the mountains as ‘sublime’ is a modern construct.
Before, the mountains were feared and revered, and avoided if possible. Reaching their peak could be either a sacrilege (for one would be bothering the gods) or a suicide mission that took too many lives already. Then, European poets and writers turned them into ‘sublime’ sceneries.
This book about mountains documents this process, illuminates the path of social constructs around mountains, and tells some curious anecdotes.
For example: victorians who went on holiday to Chamonix, in the Alps, used to gather around a telescope to watch other Victorians get to the top of Mount Blanc. Isn’t that fantastic?
5. High life and towers of life by Mrs. Aubrey Le Blond
A pioneer female Irish mountaineer who lived at the end of the 19th century. A trailblazer, in every sense of the world, she was advised to live next to the mountains to get purer air as a cure for an illness (something rather common at the time).
Then Mrs. Aubrey Le Blond started climbing mountains at a time when the British Alpine Club did not allow female members
She was both a writer of travelogues and books and a photographer.
Her writing makes her part of this list of books about mountains. It is now in the public domain and can be read here.