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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

We have a reading list for you now, books about something taboo. It's something humans do not eat, ever, except in some dark, desperate moments. Well, here's writer Mitchell Zuckoff for our series Three Books, where authors recommend books on a single theme.

MITCHELL ZUCKOFF: For starters, let's dispense with the cheap jokes about cannibalism. That means cracks about giving an arm and a leg - sorry - for a good book on the subject, or similar tasteless - sorry, again - attempts to make the subject more palatable - last one.

The fact is, the gags - really the last one, I promise - that pop up when discussions turn to the consumption of human flesh are defense mechanisms against the train-wreck fascination we have for this subject. When we move beyond the one-liners, nonfiction accounts of cannibalism provide a window into the farthest reaches of human nature. Having spent time with ex-cannibals in New Guinea, I came to these three books with an especially healthy appetite - sorry, I lied.

Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea" has rightfully taken its place as a classic for its literary merits. It has a special place in the cannibalism canon as well. In 1820, after 15 months at sea, the Nantucket whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale. How's this for irony: Fearing cannibals on the relatively nearby islands of the South Pacific, the 20-member crew set off in tiny boats for the South American coast, some 4,000 miles away.

One after another, they perished. When the final two survivors were found, Philbrick writes: They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates. It's a tribute to Philbrick's research and his eloquence that, despite the horrors, readers come away with a renewed appreciation for the human spirit. In October 1972, a plane carrying 45 people, including a Uruguayan rugby club, crashed in the Andes. That tale is told in "Alive" by Piers Paul Read.

A dozen people died in the crash, and several more died shortly after, eventually leaving 16 survivors facing bitter cold with little food and almost no chance of rescue. When they heard a report on a patched-together radio that the search had been called off, they knew that they could rely only on themselves and on the remains of their fellow passengers. The bodies preserved in the snow around them weren't strangers. They were friends, teammates and family members. Yet, the survivors found strength in each other, in their desire to live and in their faith, and eventually all chose the only option left to them. It was their salvation.

Russell Hitt's "Cannibal Valley" tells the true story of missionaries who came to New Guinea in 1954. They hoped to bring Christianity to Dani tribespeople whose practices included not only cannibalism but also wife-stealing, orgiastic feasts and barbaric funeral rites. In one particularly powerful chapter, "Cannibal Feast" describes the reaction of a missionary named Ed Maxey as a fallen warrior is butchered.

In these three memorable works of nonfiction, the authors handle the issue of cannibalism differently, yet each does so with sensitivity and insight. In the end, we as readers are left with one wrenching question: As an observer or a would-be survivor in that position, what would I have done?

BLOCK: Mitchell Zuckoff is the author of "Lost in Shangri-La."

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