I just finished teaching a Maritime Studies course with a great group up on the Cape. Fair winds S-237, I’ll be following you here! While packing up to go back home, I piled up all the books I read during the past six weeks. The institution has a great, if idiosyncratic library, so I borrowed all those “maritime books” I’d never got around to actually reading. Some were great, some not so much. Here’s two cents on how I read them.
Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World (1997) – I had high expectations for this book going in and was thoroughly disappointed.
E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (1993) – No expectations and Proulx blew me away. Fantastic characters and a wonderful account of a quirky (aren’t they all?) coastal community. Got me itching to read Michael Crummey’s new novel Galore, which I hear is fantastic.
Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2001) – So this was the second time I’ve read it in three months and my opinion of the book remains deeply ambivalent. The research and writing are fantastic. His use of modern social science research to understand an early-nineteenth century world (and a wooden one at that) seems very problematic. The class, however, loved it.
Gavin Weightman, The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story (2003) – While not exactly a classic, Weightman offers a fascinating window into what was once a major international industry: the ice trade. Who knew Yankees sent ice to Havanna, New Orleans, and even India! Fun read if somewhat lacking in deeper analysis.
John McPhee, Looking for a Ship (1990) – Hands down fantastic. Best ending to anything I’ve read in years.
Robert G. Albion, Square-Riggers on Schedule: The New York Sailing Packets to England, France, and the Cotton Ports (1938) – Not as widely read as his Rise of New York Port, this more focused monograph is what maritime history should be. And who wouldn’t love an entire chapter written by the Albions on shipwrecks! (Although I have to disagree with some of their conclusions.)
Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea (1997) – Hate to admit I never read this… but now I know why it was so popular. I’ve watched the movie 10 times, so Junger’s focus on the meteorology was quite refreshing.
Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World’s Richest Shipwreck (1998) – Another one I was glad to tick off the list, but wow it was long. A truly epic tale of perseverance, skill, luck, and victory–I just wish it had been whittled down a couple of hundred pages.
Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place (1988) – Straying a bit from shipwrecks here, but I’m thinking of assigning it for an upcoming Maritime Studies course. Powerful essay that gives an amazing sense of Antigua’s complicated cultural landscape. After reading it I don’t want to visit but I do want to learn more about the island.
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952) – It’s one of those pieces I try to read this every couple of years. Once again, I was surprised how different the book read for me this time through.
Many thanks to Clare Robins for taking the fish-eye pic above.