Alone by Adm. Richard E. Byrd (Island Press, $27.50). I am frozen in a wheelchair these days by ALS, so books are divine escape. I treasure those that offer an extraordinary sense of place, as this 1938 classic does. Alone is Byrd's account of the six months he spent researching in Antarctic darkness, slowly dying from carbon monoxide poisoning, witnessing phenomena denied most mortals. The book prompted me to travel from Florida to the Yukon in winter to try to see the glorious aurora he describes so well. 

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (Picador, $16). Astronauts speed-racing in their sports cars and orbiting in a disabled space capsule: Thrill and terror are indeed kissing cousins. Thirty-two years after Wolfe published this 1979 best seller, its celebration of the U.S. space program sent me scurrying up Florida's coast to catch the final shuttle launch.

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (Everyman's Library, $35). In Palace WalkPalace of Desire, and Sugar Street, Mahfouz follows generations of an Egyptian family from World War I to the 1950s. These novels escort us inside palaces, behind veils, into the Muslim world.

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (Penguin, $16). A travelogue that traces the footsteps of Aborigines who mapped the Outback in song. The Songlines is a reminder that though we are not nomads ourselves, our souls can explore with them, humming the world into existence.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, $15). Settings don't have to be exotic. This 2008 novel is set in a tiny Maine town where lives intersect at the local pharmacy, piano bars, and ocean overlooks. The central character, schoolteacher Olive, judges others. Sound unremarkable? Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer for fiction. Ba-duh-bum.

A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar (Simon & Schuster, $18). The setting is the mind of Nobel laureate John Forbes Nash Jr. Nash was cursed by schizophrenia and blessed with genius. Sylvia Nasar beautifully describes his twinning good and bad fortune. You'll understand genius as well as mental illness.

—  Journalist Susan Spencer-Wendel was 44 in 2011 when she was diagnosed with ALS — Lou Gehrig's disease. Until I Say Good-Bye, her memoir about making the most of her remaining time with her husband and children, is now in bookstores.