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Our friend Eric calls from time to time on various matters of mutual interest. "What are the best nautical books?" we asked recently, continuing a quest that has interested us for some time. "Do you keep track of what you read?" We needn't have asked. Eric has a doctorate in mathematics and spent a career at the Bell Labs. "A list? I've kept a list of every book I've read since age 16." "Any nautical?" we asked tentatively, thinking of Descartes, Pythagoras, game theory, binomial and other theorems. "About 600 in all", he replied; and, anticipating our next needless question, "I'll dig them out of the file." Sure enough, here is what arrived a bit later, the distillation of one man's lifetime (so far) of reading about ships and the sea (in random order):
Joseph Conrad, Typhoon; The Secret Sharer
Ernest Shackleton, South
K. Adlard Coles, Heavy Weather Sailing
Miles Smeeton, Once Is Enough
Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica
Henry M. Plummer, The Boy, Me and the Cat
Harvey Oxenhorn, Tuning the Rig
Thomas Heggen, Mister Roberts
Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October
Rachel L. Carson, The Sea Around Us
Ernle Bradford, Ulysses Found
Gavin Maxwell, Ring of Bright Waters
Linda Greenlaw, The Hungry Ocean
Arthur Ransome, We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea; Peter Duck
Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone around the World
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Eleanor Clark, The Oysters of Locmariaquer
Dougal Robertson, Survive the Savage Sea
Alfred Loomis, Professional Aid
Rolf Bjelke & Deborah Shapiro, Northern Light
Rockwell Kent, N by E
John Masefield, The Bird of Dawning
Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny
Ernle Bradford, Siege: Malta 1940-1943
Nicholas Monsarrat, H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Harbour
Dava Sobel, Longitude
Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageou
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Nevil Shute, Trustee from the Toolroom
Samuel E. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea; The European Discovery of America
Of course, more books, too many to list here, were added as time went by since we all realize the futility of reduction. What we must add about Eric is that he was inspired by sailing at Tabor Academy's summer racing camp, joined Exy and Irving Johnson on Yankee's third circumnavigation (finishing up as mate), and has cruised most years since then on various oceans. And he reads a hundred books a year. Well, thereabouts.
It should also be added that we and Eric have for much of the last three decades served together on the Board of the Sea Education Association. SEA operates two large brigantines in a college level course, "Sea Semester", and has done a fabulous job teaching young people about the sea (and about themselves) as they earn undergraduate credits. If you have unspent philanthropic dollars, know some college students, and have not heard of SEA, then beat a hasty path to PO Box 6, Woods Hole, MA 02543 or www.sea.edu. The ships operate in both the Atlantic and the Pacific; classes ashore are in Woods Hole.
The collection that had just arrived was broad and deep, the seller a respected yachting author transitioning to smaller quarters, the condition of the books generally very good. We puzzled, however, over one book; the obscure volume was too much used and handled, destined for the dumpster or the Salvation Army --but for the respect we held for its previous owner. So we took it home to read the musty pages. And discovered a treasure; a common enough book in the market, reprinted a few times, but previously unknown to us.Marcus Goodrich (1897- 1991) joined the Navy at age 16 shortly before World War I and subsequently began a novel reflecting his experiences. Delilah is about the crew of a four-pipe destroyer of the same name on station in the Philippines to enforce the U.S. colonial administration during that turbulent period. Woven throughout are the escapades of sailors ashore and at sea, the challenges of operating an old coal burning ship, the murky political background, the intriguing story of an old Jesuit missionary, difficult passages and anchorages among the remote islands of the Sulu Sea, the shadow of war, and other meanderings, digressions, musings and adventures. The writing is dense, intense, and the language rich; characters are fresh and real, so is the Navy of that period; the context is small town America plunked down in the exotic, smoldering East. The readers is worked hard and ultimately rewarded. We are drawn deeply into the emotions of the sailors, the damp heat of the climate, the underlying violence of nature, clashes among cultures, the intricate complexity of command and leadership, the constant puzzles and solutions of shipkeeping. For a time, after publication of this first novel in 1941, Goodrich took his place with Melville and Conrad. But he did not remain there, and that is the fascinating part. The second volume on Delilah, which one senses might have satisfied those looking for a wee bit more plot, was written but withheld from publication by the author, a perfectionist who also withheld four other works of fiction because he was not satisfied with them. Goodrich wrote all his life, as vocation and avocation, yet Delilah is all that we shall see from him. Too bad. We want more. Also, like the producers of the recent film, "The Stone Reader" , we wonder how one brilliant critical success was not followed by more.
The conventional voyage taken by a book that comes into your hands and ours from the author is usually through a publisher, an intermediary or two for the wholesaling and the retailing of it, with the final push requiring the expenditure of shoe leather or gas or postage. And, of course, there is the exchange of money all along the way. With the final item offered in this Catalog, we don't propose to do away with the latter, but we are struck by the different route taken in the case of a monumental work -arguably one of the greatest-on US maritime history and shipbuilding.
William Armstrong Fairburn (1876-1947) was a naval architect and marine engineer from Scotland who eventually became a successful corporate executive in this country with enough time, resources, persistence, passion, knowledge and assistance to produce the six volume, 4200 page Merchant Sail. The huge work ranges from the earliest days of English settlement to the end of the age of sail at the beginning of the 20th century. To the extent humanly possible, no detail was spared, no event passed by, no ship overlooked, no shipping or shipbuilding firm ignored. The index of vessels alone is 125 pages and lists over 13,000 ships built in American yards, many with histories and sailing records. Fairburn published only one edition of his great work and made the volumes available without charge to public libraries in communities that have a direct contact with the sea "... as a humble donation to the people of the United States". That was it: no publisher, no wholesalers or retailers, no money, no nonsense. While copies are now extremely hard to find, even after a limited reprint edition several years ago, we have access to a clean and crisp copy of all 4,200 plus pages and offer, like monks of the monasteries of old (but with different technology) to painstakingly produce and bind a limited number of sets upon special order. Another unconventional stage in the voyage of an unconventional book, but one, we think, that will be worthwhile not necessarily for collectors but for researchers and other enthusiasts of sail who have become as absorbed and passionate as Fairburn.
"What's the best book in your shop?" David's thoughtful eyes looked across the table as conversation ebbed among the small group of friends reunited over dinner. "Well, you mean..." This was our moment, after having perhaps too long rambled on of our bookstore adventures and aspirations. We scrolled through the shelves and catalogs in our mind's eye, wondering how to respond, hoping for some clue from the interlocutor. A Harvard-trained professor of comparative religion and an ordained minister, David is not unkind, and he knows books. What did he mean - he should know that's too broad a question. "The shop has number of quite separate categories," we began, "yachting, cruising, maritime history, technical tomes, fiction." "Oh sure," David jumped in, "but what is the best book?" His eyes twinkled with amusement as we mumbled through the names and possible criteria: Bowditch or Ashley, Bradford or Morison, Herreshoff or Phillips-Birt, best written or best images, collectable series, oldest or newest, most attractively produced. Soon, given our prevarication and indecision, the conversation drifted on to other directions amid general agreement that the "best" ice cream flavor next door at Ben & Jerry's is also hard to pinpoint.
Nevertheless, David's provocative question has haunted us. Identifying the "best" is a pervasive element of our culture. Top ten, final four, bestseller list. Movies and colleges are routinely rated; so are automobiles, stock market analysts and investment managers, batters and pitchers, toasters and refrigerators -all the while putting aside the questions, "best for whom, for what?" Sometimes there is clarity around specific ranking criteria, but as often subjective judgment or selective data weigh heavily. Anyway, we now have a quest (thanks a lot, David). Naturally, we will continue to salute the diversity of subjects and perspectives; and we firmly believe that each book has a compelling reason to exist, offers a unique contribution. But, among nautical or maritime books, what is (or are) the best? We solicit your comments and nominations.
For pure delight of visual, intellectual and tactile enjoyment, we are mightily impressed with the massive and magnificent J Class The Book (F. Chevalier and J. Taglang), the yachting gift book of the decade (according to its US distributor and one of the authors), a book that will only appreciate in value. Similarly, Lines A Half Century of Yacht Designs by Sparkman & Stephens, 1930-1980 (O. J. Stephens II), also beautifully produced, endlessly fascinating. Both are new books, but not the kind you'll find at the airport bookstore.
Best, Part II
The young woman was looking about the shop in some confusion, so we asked if we could help. "I'm looking for a book for my father," she acknowledged. "For your father?" we replied. "Yes, he likes boats." "Oh. Boats?" "Yes, we have a boat," she went on, helpfully. "You have a boat?" we asked. Realizing that a question answered with a question keeps the conversation going but may not be particularly helpful, we continued, "What kind of boat?" Sail, power, big, small, ocean-going or coastal, cruising or racing, an engineer or a dreamer - we went on with the interview and eventually zeroed in on a few choices. As she made the purchase, she glanced around once more and asked, "Do you have any current Bestsellers?" "No," we replied, "There are only nautical or maritime books here. But some are quite popular." "Which ones?" she countered, and we knew again the sting of that question we raised before: what are the best nautical books?
Readers have provided a few helpful responses, but not many. Bowditch. Peter Kemp's Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea. Paasch's great Marine Encyclopedia 1890. More often, our Readers threw up there hands in surrender or defiance: there is no best, the question has no answer, more thought is required, what do you think. Finally, Chris provided this 'customer derived' list form his bookstore on the US West Coast:
Bengtsson, F., The Long Ships
Buckley, C., Steaming to Bamboola
Cordingly, D., Under the Black Flag
DeHartog, J, The Commodore
Gann, E., Song of the Sirens
Kilpack, J., Nothing Can Go Wrong
Lansing, A., Endurance
Mowat, F., The Grey Seas Under
Raban, J., Passage to Juneau
Shute, N., The Trustee from the Tool Room
Bucheim, L., The Boat
Childers, Ersline, The Riddle of the Sands
deHartog, J., The Captain
Freeman, Norman, Seaspray and Whiskey
Hayden, S., Wanderer
Knapp, P., The Berengaria Exchange
Lee, C., Eight Bells and Top Masts
Mowat, F., The Serpent's Coil
Roth, H., The Longest Race
Smith, W., Hungry as the Sea