Sometime towards the end of 2016, I heard on my kitchen radio that astronomers had just discovered there are two trillion galaxies in the universe – 10 times more than previously thought.

I switched off the radio and sat down, practically dizzy – overwhelmed by the unfathomable vastness of it all. A single galaxy, remember, like ours, consists of gravity, planets, and millions or billions of stars. So: another 1,999,999,999,999 of those.

I was working, at the time, on my novel West, about a Pennsylvania farmer who, in the early 1800s, comes across rumours that giant vanished creatures, whose bones have been found in a Kentucky swamp, might still be alive in the wilderness beyond the frontier. “It gave him a kind of vertigo,” I’d written, and here I was, in my kitchen, experiencing the same thing – a sort of reeling consciousness of everything I didn’t know and couldn’t grasp; an ineffable wonder at what’s beyond and outside us, uncharted and unexplored.

I’ve always been drawn to stories about all kinds of wildernesses – fascinated by their allure, and their effect on our sense of who we are. Here are some of my favourites:

1. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
In Bowles’s strange, frightening, and at times almost hallucinatory novel, an American couple, Port and Kit, and their friend Tunner, travel in the aftermath of the second world war to the harsh emptiness of the north African desert. What follows, as the three of them drift through places they don’t understand, is both an awakening and a disintegration, as they come face to face with the vast and hostile landscape around them. A story about time and mortality, about the smallness and brevity of our lives and the horrifying emptiness beyond “the sheltering sky”.

2. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Robert Grainier is an ordinary man whose job clearing trees for the US railroad in the early 1900s places him in an almost pristine wilderness, where he builds himself a house, marries and has a child. Then one day the very wilderness that has provided for him turns on Grainier, engulfing him in tragedy. A short novel of extraordinary power, Train Dreams tells the story of Grainier’s long life in the midst of a violent, changing, haunted landscape.

3. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
At once philosophical and immensely readable, these essays on the importance of getting lost are among Solnit’s best. Like a true wanderer, you set off with her without ever knowing where you’re heading, but always rewarded by the pleasure of the journey, by her insight, sparkling anecdotes, and heartfelt exhortation to “leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

4. The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
There are countless books about Capt Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910-13 bid to reach the South Pole, not least Scott’s own enthralling and almost unbearably poignant diaries. What I love about Bainbridge’s 1991 novel is the chorus of voices; the interlinked and overlapping first-person accounts of this most disastrous of journeys, as Petty Officer Taff Evans, Dr Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson, Henry (Birdie) Bowers, Capt Lawrence (Titus) Oates and Scott himself all tell their stories. In all their wonder, idealism, foolishness and courage, Bainbridge brings them heartbreakingly to life in the cruel Antarctic wilderness.

Shackleton Expedition - Endurance - AntarcticaErnest Shackleton’s ship Endurance trapped in ice during an expedition to the Antarctic. Exact date unknown. Lizweatherwatch

Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance trapped in ice during an expedition to the Antarctic. Photograph: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

5. South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton
For sheer edge-of-the-seat adventure it’s hard to think of any story that beats the awe-inspiring survival of Ernest Shackleton and his crew after their ship, the Endurance, is crushed in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea only a few years after Scott’s doomed quest. The final 800-mile dash, in a 23ft lifeboat through some of the most atrocious seas on Earth, is unforgettable.

6. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
In this gripping, sad, beautifully written novel, we head into outer space in the company of a Christian pastor, Peter Leigh, who has been asked by the inhabitants of the newly colonised planet Oasis to visit them. With characteristic charm and intelligence, Faber gives us both a page-turning story and a meditation on love and mortality, suffering and loss, morality and faith.

7. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Newby’s account of his chaotic and eccentric trip to climb the remote, previously unconquered Mir Samir peak in Afghanistan is a delight, brimming with curiosity and closely observed detail. He was working at the time in Mayfair, in the world of haute couture, his only previous climbing experience amounting to three hastily scheduled days in Snowdonia. Though at times hungry and ill, his experience in the mountains is transporting: “Rarely in my life had I felt such an ecstatic feeling of happiness … The present was bliss beyond belief.”

8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
When this classic novel was published in 1847 (a year before Brontë died of tuberculosis at the age of 30), critics hardly knew what to make of it. For some it was a work of “vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors”, of “brutal cruelty and semi-savage love”. Even so, they understood it was like nothing that had ever been written, and even the most appalled among them sensed what Charlotte Brontë called her sister’s “secret power and fire”, which was rooted in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors around Haworth. “Her native hills were far more to her than a spectacle,” wrote Charlotte. “They were what she lived in, and by.”

9. Quarantine by Jim Crace
Crace’s masterful novel takes us into the parched and hostile landscape of the Judean desert, where we meet Christ himself – naked and fasting – and a small band of other “quarantiners”, all with their different reasons for being there. A spellbinding tale that is by turns funny and grotesque, lyrical and philosophical; a fascinating study of hope and fear, belief and imagination.

10. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Nothing captures the lure of this book better than Thoreau’s own explanation for why, as a young man in 1845, he turned his back on society to spend two years alone in a cabin in the woods. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life … and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”