Why I Went to Sea with Patrick O’Brian

I knew the books existed because I had seen the movie, which seemed like a good action yarn and one of Russell Crow’s best parts. I had no interest at all in looking up the sea tales it was based on.

But one summer I found myself in Oxford, reading through the collection of Mary Renault manuscripts in St. Hugh’s library, and she raved over and over in letters about O’Brian. Now Renault is a writer I trust, and whose early books I especially value, so the next time I was in an Oxfam looking for something to read at night, I picked up Master and Commander, the first book in a long series.

In the first scene two men sit next to each other at a concert in Port Mahon, Minorca. One is a beefy Englishman who annoys the devil out of the little Irishman next to him, so much so that they both take insult and exchange addresses by way of saying they’re willing to duel. When they meet again the next day, though, that is not at all what happens.

It’s the utter weirdness of the books that I love. There are passages that would fit in Tristram Shandy, and ones like fantasy sequences, and ones in which the Scarlet Pimpernel would be at home. There are long letters and journal entries, and a drunken sloth, as well as all the naval battles and weather descriptions anyone could want, and the ancient mariner would have loved them too.

It is his refusal to write just one kind of book that I love.

I have refused to choose between popular novels and literary fiction, I have refused to make students choose one over the other, I have written about Doris Lessing and Stephen King in the same pages, and I have read anything, anything that spoke to me all my life.

Of all the good advice and interesting insights in Natalie Goldberg’s books, there is one passage that saddened me deeply. Goldberg tells how she picked up a Louis L’Amour novel while traveling and was unable to put it down. She did not treat this as a new discovery, but saw the book as having done something to her, controlled her, and she rejected westerns altogether. What a pity she could not hear what that template said to her.

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