[image: retro-spinnaker, 2009, JA Van Devender]
Those who go down to the sea in ships, Who do business on great waters,
(co-posted as a review on Amazon.com)
It has been my custom throughout my life to read (books preferably) prior to falling asleep. With the dearth of constructive entertainment or interest, prevalent on the television, I now find myself resorting to this a bit earlier than previously on days when the press of duty frees my conscience to do so.
I think reading fiction, especially historical fiction, is a very edifying activity. I have encouraged this type of reading, along with poetry, to those over whom I have some discipleship privileges. Reading, as opposed to the visual arts like movies, etc., helps develop our vocabulary but also trains the mind, perhaps sub-consciously, in communication skills. This is especially important for those who aspire to the pulpit ministry because their goal is to engage the imagination as a means of touching the heart. The imagined scene is so much more powerful than one projected on a screen behind the pulpit. The hearer is engaged at a much deeper level as the words he hears communicates insights that simply cannot be projected. I view with deep concern the diminished emphasis on reading in the younger generations. I have met many, perhaps a majority, who have never read an adult novel. It's a shame.
All this is to say that I recently have revisited the Jack Aubrey series written by Patrick O'Brian (RIP). It is my admittedly amateur's opinion, that they are the finest volumes of nautical historical fiction ever written. Horatio Hornblower (C. S. Forester) was OK, in his simple way, but I will take Jack any day over him.
It is often said of Melville's great work, Moby Dick, that if you read the unabridged version you will know more about whales than you know about the main characters. There's some truth to that. I found those sections tedious when I read it years ago. I hear a similar complaint against O'Brian's work. One of my sons said that he couldn't "get into it" because of the extensive descriptions of sails, tackle, ship designs, nautical terminology, etc. To a mind trained by virtually unending car chase scenes in action movies, the desire for something to happen before interest is evoked, does pose a problem. I do not think the nautical lore to be overly done in O'Brian's work as cetology (study of whales) was in Melville's. It is there but it is not pedantic... it is often humorously rendered as the paternally minded seamen explain to the hopelessly land-lubbing Dr. Mataurin the things which, in their world, are as obvious and ordinary, as "physic" is in his.
But what O'Brian does best, far better than Forester, is build his stories around real events from the point of view of those who were actually there. O'Brian spent thousands of hours reading old ship logs from the period (turn of the century, 1800) and then incorporated the actual engagements and results into his plot. In his own words, he could not, in all his imagining, come up with more exciting stuff nor more incredible.
A point in fact. The first novel in the series, "Master and Commander", should not, in any circumstances, be confused with the movie of the same title. They bear virtually no relation in fact. In the novel, Aubrey's first command is of a little brig called the "Sophie" and she is modeled after the actual ship H.M.S. Speedy (see HERE for verification) and Aubrey, in this novel, modeled after Lord Cochrane (only as a nautical person, not in his personal history). The crowning engagement that does in fact stretch a person's credibility was when this little 14 gun ship with its 50 or so men, willingly engaged and took a much larger, more heavily armed ship, manned by a crew of over 300. Now folks, this almost defies belief, but there it is.
O'Brian's novel stays close to the facts of the engagement but makes it come alive as his characters live the battle for us. It's the second or third time I have read this particular novel and it is just as fresh and entertaining now as it was over 20 years ago when I first picked it up.
So, I think O'Brian's fiction stands on a par with any of the "great" writers. His subjects are different than Dicken's but not less compelling. His attention to detail, character development and nuances are there, sometimes subtle and at others not so. He doesn't overly romanticize the era with its harsh reality (flogging at the grate, for example) but neither does he drown us in it. The sailors of the day did in fact understand such things differently than we, even if they were on the receiving end of it. What we do see is the seemingly infinite gap between a midshipman (perhaps 10 or 11 years old) and the captain in how they lived and died and ate their meals and what concerned their thoughts. We are given insights into the politics of the mess decks and why the Navy mandated that every seaman must be allowed at least 14 whole inches to hang his hammock and why this required a "watch and watch", or two watch rotation for the crew.
Like every military activity it was hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror, and so we are introduced to how a barely pubescent midshipman might, in boredom, carve his name in a foretop, only to visit that same ship, years later, as its captain and be overcome by nostalgia as he sat there in lonely isolation.
This is the stuff of human life, no matter how or where it is lived, and Patrick O'Brian is an author that helps us live ours and be better for it.