I'm All at Sea
Posted by: Neil Hollands
My reading life began with trips to the library with my father, and one of his favorite subject matters were books about events on the ocean. As I begin to reach the age that he was back then, my own nonfiction reading takes me more often out to sea with books that capture the excitement of exploring, surviving, or doing battle on the briny deep. It’s a great subject with surprising variety that makes it a promising theme for an upcoming book group meeting.
Simon Winchester’s Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories is a bit slow out of the dock. Taking on a big subject, Winchester organizes his book around the seven stages of man monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but instead applies the ages to the ocean. Unfortunately, Winchester takes a while to get the wind in his sails, beginning with some rather purple prose about the beauty of the Atlantic and what it stirsred in him as a young man. The opening section on “Firsts” also bogs down in some rather dry material about the geologic formation of the Atlantic and its early exploration. Hang in there, however, and you’ll be eventually be rewarded with dozens of stories that are more fitting the claims of the book’s subtitle.
Nathaniel Philbrick was great from the get go with his debut In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, a book that examined the fated ship that inspired much of Melville’s Moby Dick, and the book for which he is perhaps still best known. His follow-up, Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, is just as good, continuing to look at American seafaring in the same era, but finding a much different tale.
Sea of Glory takes a fascinating look at the state of exploration in early America, beginning with the political skirmishes that delayed our nation’s first major exploring expedition. All the back room maneuvering left the back door to leadership of the expedition to a relative neophyte, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, a young officer who had made his reputation surveying parts of the Atlantic. After the Secretary of War went around the stodgy Navy of the time, Wilkes found himself in charge of a large fleet of ships tasked to explore, map, and engage in scientific and ethnographic inquiry in a huge swath of the world: parts of South America, the then undiscovered Antarctica, the South Pacific, and the North American coast between the Columbia and the San Francisco Bay. All of this would be attempted by a batch of green officers and scientists.
The voyage took four years and brought out the worst in Wilkes, who turned out to be a tyrant who often passed over the best interests of the expedition as a whole in pursuit of his own glory. The Ex Ex, as Philbrick calls it, lost a ship, participated in a massacre of natives, killed dozens of its men, squandered many promising careers, and ended in a series of attempted courts-martial. Still, the results would expand America’s geographic knowledge immensely, spur many further explorations, and provide the materials that launched the Smithsonian Institution and several other American institutions. Philbrick tells his tale well, balancing derring-do, emotional drama, history, and science perfectly.
Should your book group take on the theme of the sea, you’ll find no shortage of exciting books about survival, exploration, conflict, and the environment. The fiction is just as good as the nonfiction, and readers should be able to find titles with approaches that suit a variety of reading styles.