Required reading: Antarctica

The British government is in dispute with Argentina over a slice of Antarctica. What can they learn from a selection of the best books on Earth's most inhospitable continent?

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A 169,000 square mile patch of Antarctica was renamed Queen Elizabeth Land by the British government last week. The move was intended as a present to the Queen in honour of her Diamond Jubilee. And for a day or two, all seemed well.

It's funny, though, how quickly an innocent-seeming gesture can ignite an international diplomatic firestorm. Days after the announcement, the Argentinian government told British officials that the renamed area belongs to Argentina and accused Britain of "anachronistic imperialist ambitions that hark back to ancient practices". So who does our southernmost - and coldest - continent really belong to? And what is the history of the most inhospitable place on Earth? Time to hit the books.

• Go first to the recently published general survey Antarctica by the New Scientist writer Gabrielle Walker to learn how - while belief in an icy Terra Australis at the bottom of the world dates back to ancient Rome - no human being saw Antarctica until the Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen sailed close to it in 1820.

• But two names, of course, will forever be inextricably linked with the continent. On December 14, 1911, after a race that transfixed the world, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first man to set foot at the geographic South Pole. Read Race to the South Pole to discover Amundsen's diaries of the expedition as well as those of Robert Scott, the British explorer who arrived at the pole just 34 days later and who died along with his party on the return journey.

• Apsley Cherry-Garrard was one of the party sent to search for Scott and his men in 1912; his The Worst Journey in the World is widely believed to be the greatest book on polar exploration ever written.

• The endless white landscapes of Antarctica have seduced many travellers since then. Two, though, will repay particular attention. See Frank Hurley's Antarctica for some of the most beautiful photographs of Antarctica ever taken. And go to the American writer Peter Matthiessen's End of the Earth for a wonderfully lyrical account of a trip to South Georgia Island, "the last outpost in a great emptiness of ocean".