I have picked some of my favorites that are likely to be available at bookstores, online, or at your local library. A few out-of-print island classics have been reissued in paperback by Mutual Publishing Company, 125 Center St., Ste. 210, Honolulu, HI 96816 (tel. 808/732-1709; fax 808/734-4094; www.mutualpublishing.com).
If you have time for only one South Pacific book, read The Lure of Tahiti (1986). Editor A. Grove Day, himself an islands expert, includes 18 short stories, excerpts of other books, and essays. There is a little here from many writers mentioned below, plus selections from captains Cook, Bougainville, and Bligh.
The National Geographic Society's book The Isles of the South Pacific (1971), by Maurice Shadbolt and Olaf Ruhen, and Ian Todd's Island Realm (1974), are somewhat out-of-date but have lovely color photographs. Living Corals (1979), by Douglas Faulkner and Richard Chesher, shows what you will see underwater.
History & Politics
Several early English and French explorers published accounts of their exploits, but The Journals of Captain James Cook stand out as the most exhaustive and evenhanded. Edited by J. C. Beaglehole, they were published in three volumes (one for each voyage) in 1955, 1961, and 1967. A. Grenfell Price edited many of Cook's key passages and provides short transitional explanations in The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific (1971).
The explorers' visits and their consequences in Tahiti, Australia, and Antarctica are the subject of Alan Moorehead's excellent study The Fatal Impact: The Invasion of the South Pacific, 1767-1840 (1966), a colorful tome loaded with sketches and paintings.
Three good books trace Tahiti's history. Robert Langdon's Tahiti: Island of Love (1979) takes the story up to 1977. David Howarth's Tahiti: A Paradise Lost (1985) stops with France's taking possession in 1842. The Rape of Tahiti (1983), by Edward Dodd, covers the island from prehistory to 1900.
Mad About Islands (1987), by A. Grove Day, follows the island exploits of literary figures Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, W. Somerset Maugham, Charles Nordhoff, and James Norman Hall. A Dream of Islands (1980), by Gavan Dawes, tells of the missionary John Williams as well as of Melville, Stevenson, and the painter Paul Gauguin.
Former New York Times reporter Robert Turnbull traveled the islands in the 1970s and reported his findings in Tin Roofs and Palm Trees (1977).
Peoples & Cultures
Perhaps the most famous book about Polynesia culture is Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), in which Margaret Mead tells of her year studying promiscuous adolescent girls in the Manu'a islands of American Samoa. Her interpretation of Samoan sex customs was taken to task by New Zealander Derek Freeman in Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983).
Bengt Danielsson, a Swedish anthropologist who arrived on Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki raft in 1947 and spent the rest of his life in on Tahiti, painted a broader picture of Polynesian sexuality in Love in the South Seas (1986). Heyerdahl tells his tale and explains his theory of Polynesian migration (since debunked) in Kon Tiki (1950). In 1936, Heyerdahl and his wife lived for a year in the Marquesas. His book, Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature (1975), provides an in-depth look at Marquesan life at the time.
Two Americans gave unscholarly but entertaining accounts of Polynesian island life during the 1920s. Robert Dean Frisbie spent several years as a trader in the Cook Islands and told about it charmingly in The Book of Puka-Puka (1928; Mutual, 1986). Robert Lee Eskridge spent a year on Mangareva in French Polynesia; his book is titled, appropriately, Manga Reva (1931; Mutual, 1986).
Although the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson composed little fiction about the South Pacific during his years in Samoa, he wrote articles and letters about his travels and about events leading to Germany's acquisition of the islands in 1890. Many of them are available in two collections: In the South Seas (1901) and Island Landfalls (1987). The latter includes three Stevenson short stories with South Seas settings: "The Bottle Imp," "The Isle of Voices," and "The Beach at Falesá."
Sir David Attenborough, the British documentary film producer, traveled to Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga in the late 1950s to film, among other things, Tongan Queen Salote's royal kava ceremony. Sir David entertainingly tells of his trips in Journeys to the Past (1983).
The travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux took his kayak along for a tour of the South Pacific and reported on what he found in The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (1992). The book is a fascinatingly frank yarn, full of island characters and out-of-the-way places. Tonga's royal family reportedly was so upset with Theroux's comments that he is banned from returning to the kingdom.
More recently, J. Maarten Troost tells some hilarious tales in Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu (2006). He spins similar yarns about Micronesia in The Sex Lives of Cannibals (2004).
Starting with Herman Melville's Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) -- semifictional accounts of his adventures in the Marquesas and Tahiti, respectively -- the South Pacific has spawned a wealth of fiction. (Though set in the South Pacific Ocean, Melville's 1851 classic Moby Dick does not tell of the islands.)
After Melville came Julien Viaud, a French naval officer who fell in love with a Tahitian woman during a sojourn in Tahiti. As Pierre Loti, he wrote The Marriage of Loti (1880; reprinted by KPI in 1986), a classic tale of lost love.
W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence (1919) is a fictional account of the life of Paul Gauguin. Maugham changed the name to Charles Strickland and made the painter English instead of French. Gauguin's own novel, Noa Noa, was published in English in 1928. Maugham also produced a volume of South Pacific short stories, The Trembling of a Leaf (1921; Mutual, 1985). The most famous is "Rain," the tragic story of prostitute Sadie Thompson and the missionary she led astray in American Samoa. It was made into several movies. My favorite Maugham story is "The Fall of Edward Bernard," about a Chicagoan who forsakes love and fortune at home for "beauty, truth, and goodness" in Tahiti.
Next on the scene were Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Together they wrote the most famous of all South Pacific novels, Mutiny on the Bounty (1932). They followed that enormous success with two other novels: Men Against the Sea (1934), based on Captain Bligh's epic longboat voyage after the mutiny; and Pitcairn's Island (1935), about Lt. Fletcher Christian's demise on the mutineers' remote hideaway.
For a nonfiction retelling of the great tale, see Caroline Alexander's The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (2003).
Nordhoff and Hall later wrote The Hurricane (1936), a novel set in American Samoa that has been made into two movies filmed in French Polynesia. Hall also wrote short stories and essays, collected in The Forgotten One (1986).
The second-most-famous South Pacific novel appeared just after World War II -- Tales of the South Pacific (1947), by James A. Michener. A U.S. Navy historian, Michener spent much of the war on Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein turned the novel into the musical South Pacific, a huge Broadway hit; it was later made into the blockbuster movie.
Michener toured the islands a few years later and wrote Return to Paradise (1951), a collection of essays and short stories. The essays describe the islands as they were after World War II but before tourists began to arrive -- near the end of the region's backwater, beachcomber days. His piece on Fiji predicts that country's Fijian-Indian problems.
Mutiny on the Bounty
The most famous movies about the South Pacific are two Mutiny on the Bounty films based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. The 1935 version starred Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as a tyrannical Captain Bligh. (It was actually the second film based on the Bounty story; the first was an Australian production, starring Errol Flynn in his first movie role.) The 1962 remake with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard was filmed on Tahiti. A 1984 version, The Bounty, not based on Nordhoff and Hall, was filmed on Moorea and featured Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as a more sympathetic (and historically accurate) Bligh.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.