19 December 2015

Move Over, Capt. Ahab

The idea for my column today came from two things that happened recently. First, I bought a book at a Books-A-Million last Saturday during a lull at one of my signings there (I know, I know, I'm supposed to be selling my own wares at these events, not buying the books of others--what can I say?). Second, I read with great interest Art Taylor's SleuthSayers column a week ago Friday, in which he talked about some of the differences between (and differences in attitude toward) reading fiction and nonfiction.

The book I bought was called In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, which has been adapted into a new movie of the same name, directed by Ron Howard. I've not yet seen the movie--but I know the book is good because I just finished reading it. And the only thing unusual about the fact that I bought and read it in the first place is that it's a true story.

I do seek out and read nonfiction from time to time, notably Seabiscuit, The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, Unbreakable, The Right Stuff, In Cold Blood, etc.--but I confess that 99% of what I read (and write) is fiction. The reason for that is simple: I see and hear about reality all the time, especially in the morning paper or on the Nightly News, and when I read a book for pleasure I don't want reality. I want to be entertained. I don't want to be educated or illuminated--if that happens as a byproduct, fine, but first and foremost I'm looking for suspense and emotion and entertainment.

Here's my point: some nonfiction, especially that which falls into the delightful category of creative nonfiction, IS entertaining. That's certainly the case with Philbrick's book. Just as an author would do in a good novel, Nathaniel Philbrick introduces the characters (with all their flaws), puts them in a dire situation, makes their predicament even worse (and worse, and worse), and finally brings the story to a conclusion that's satisfying to the reader.

The icing on the cake is that the reader learns something about life as well as something about two things unfamiliar to most of us: (1) the legendary whaling capital of long-ago Nantucket, Massachusetts, and (2) the fascinating process by which daring men with tiny boats and large harpoons hunted and killed and butchered and boiled (to extract the oil from) leviathans measuring eighty feet in length and weighing sixty tons.

I won't give away any plot goodies here, but I will say that this is the true story of the officers and crew of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which in 1819 was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale two thousand miles off the west coast of South America. And, ultimately, an engrossing story of courage and leadership and survival. The Essex tragedy served as a young Herman Melville's inspiration for Moby Dick, which was published 32 years later, and--according to Philbrick--was as familiar a story to nineteenth-century schoolchildren as the sinking of the Titanic was a hundred years later.

As for the movie, it opened on December 11 to mixed reviews, but I still look forward to seeing it. One reason is that I'm a fan of Ron Howard's films (Ransom, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Backdraft, Splash, Cocoon, etc.), and another is that I want to find out how these characters and the action that thrilled me in the book will look on the big screen. Besides, what other good movies are out there or coming up for me to see right now? The newest Star Wars? The newest Hunger Games? Spotlight? Bridge of Spies? Spectre? The Hateful Eight? Revenant? (Okay, you're right--I want to watch all of those too.)

Have any of you seen In the Heart of the Sea? Would its classification as nonfiction deter you from reading the book? In other words, does the fact that it was a real occurrence matter ro you? I've already admitted a personal preference for fiction over non-, but I've also said I enjoyed this tale. I'm not sure the reading process would've been any more fun if it had been fiction. Maybe it wouldn't have been as much fun. Maybe it actually helped to know that such amazing things really did happen.

I realize I'm resurrecting a subject that Art has already covered eight days ago, but I must ask: what are your feelings regarding fiction vs. nonfiction, in general? Are you as biased as I am? What are some nonfiction books you've read that you feel are as good or better than well-known novels you've read? Any recommendations?

Bottom line is, if you feel so inclined, check out In the Heart of the Sea. Nathaniel Philbrick did a fine job with that book, and I suspect that good old Opie created a fine movie from it as well. Sheriff Taylor would've been proud.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to novels and shorts. Can't stay away from fiction for long.


  1. Have not read or seen that one (although I did read Moby Dick once). Based on the nonfiction you mention I would like to recommend a book I just finished. THE CHILDREN'S BLIZZARD by David Laskin is the story of the blizzard of 1888 that swept from Canada all the way to Mexico, killing hundreds of people, mostly school kids in the Dakotas. (The day began so beautiful that many people weren't even wearing coats.)

    Along the way you learn a lot about the immigrants who settled that region, about the weather and the state of weather predicting (the term "cold front" was a direct response to World War I, many years later), and the stunning corruption and politicking in the Army Signal Corps whose job the forecasting was.

  2. Thanks, Rob--that's exactly the kind of tip I was hoping for. I'll put The Chidren's Blizzard on my list.

    A sort-of similar book that I enjoyed years ago was Isaac's Storm, about the 1900 hurricane that hit the Texas coast and killed as many as 10,000 people in Galveston alone. It seems that disasters are always interesting subjects.

  3. John, in general I share your preference for fiction, though I usually read a few nonfiction books a year, usually about politics, social issues, religion, or higher education. I remember being enthralled by both ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and THE FINAL DAYS, and also by Robert Kennedy's memoir about the Cuban missile crisis--those read like thrillers. A while ago, I received TAKING THE STAND, by Alan Dershowitz, as a gift--I've read only a few of the essays so far, but they were fascinating. I also share your fondness for Ron Howard movies--the ones you mention, and also Parenthood and Cinderella Man.

    Rob, your comment reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder's THE LONG WINTER--that was set in the Dakotas, and I think I remember a scene in which Laura and one of her sisters barely made it home from school during a blizzard (it's been a while since I last read that book to my now-grown daughters). As you probably know, that novel is based on Wilder's own experiences--could she have been writing about the blizzard you mention? Anyway, after living in South Dakota for eleven years, I can testify that blizzards sometimes start suddenly there, and and they can get bad.

  4. Bonnie, I'm glad you mentioned political nonfiction. I have on my shelves All the President's Men, The Ends of Power, Blind Ambition, The Final Days, and others from the Watergate era. Haven't gotten too much into current political books (unlike almost everyone I know)--maybe I prefer natural disasters to manmade disasters . . .

    Ad I should probably mention Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes--it's one of the better books about the Vietnam War.

  5. B.K.

    Wilder gets mentioned in Laskin's book. She was describing the Snow Winter, 1880-1881, and her portrayal is considered very accurate. (She was there, by the way.)

  6. You guys are making me cold just talking about this. We're supposed to have a high of 80 during Christmas week, here in the south, which suits me just fine.

    Rob, I think Laskin also wrote, years ago, a book about the rainy weather in your Pacific Northwest. Can't remember the name of it.

  7. John, actually the book was about the LITERATURE of the weather of the northwest. People have been trying to describe it on paper for hundreds of years. THe title was brilliant: RAINS ALL THE TIME. Sums it up.

  8. Oh, I meant to say, he also wrote a book about his family called, speaking of titles, THE FAMILY. One third went to Israel. One came to the U.S. (and invented the bra... Maidenform Company), and the others stayed in Germany and you know how that worked out for them.

  9. Interesting! I really do have to read some of his books. And thanks for the education--I'm good at knowing/remembering just enough about something to be wrong about it.

    By the way, my plan is to go tomorrow afternoon to a showing of In the Heart of the Sea--so I will at least be knowledgeable about that.

  10. I've read THE CHILDREN'S BLIZZARD, and (of course) all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and having lived up here in South Dakota for the last 25 years, I can tell you they're pretty accurate. The winter of 1996-97 was memorable, to put it mildly.

    Great non-fiction books?
    After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5,000 BC by Steven Mithin. There's a lot of flesh on them thar bones when he gets through with them....
    Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill - pleasant dreams.
    The Death of Woman Wang by Jonathan Spence (phenomenal about an almost anonymous woman in 17th century China)
    God's Chinese Son by Jonathan Spence (the wildly improbable life of the founder of the Taiping Rebellion)
    A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 by Alethea Hayter (includes suicide, drug addiction, seduction, elopement, etc.)
    A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (from the diaries of an 18th century American midwife in New England)
    The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos (early American story of a Native American captive who never came home)

  11. Thanks, Eve! I've read only two of those seven: After the Ice and A Sultry Month. I appreciate the list!

  12. John, same views, same feelings here. You can still find a whaling ship in Mystic, Connecticut, the Morgan.

    Further thoughts:

    1. In the 5th or 6th grade, I read Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. I’m not sure if I realized the adventure was non-fiction before I began, but I loved it. I’ve not re-read it since, so I wonder how I might view it as an adult.

    2. Joseph Conrad spent a large part of his career at sea, which really adds verisimilitude to his sea stories.

    3. Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service is a novel but one with considerable background and forevision– Childers intended the story (often ranked in the top 10 of spy novels) to serve as a warning to an unprepared Britain the unthinkable– that Germany was planning toward war.

    I loved sea stories (especially deep sea stories) as a kid, but I didn’t realize until I was an adult that my tiny Midwestern mother was a Horatio Hornblower fan.

  13. Good thoughts, Leigh--thank you. I've not read either of the books you mentioned, but they have now been noted. As for books read and movies seen long ago, you are correct that they sometimes leave far different impressions years later--but I usually enjoy rereading/reviewing them for that very reason.

    I too love sea stories, and remember some dandies by both Clive Cussler and Alistair MacLean. And, of course, Peter Benchley. After all this talk of oldtime sea voyages, I might have to dig out my DVD of Mutiny on the Bounty.

  14. Hey, John --
    I'm slowly catching up on everything now that the semester has ended and grades have been turned in--and wanted to say I enjoyed your column here! I know you mentioned being hesitant about echoing any points from my column, but really I love the idea of conversation here, responding, elaborating, building counterarguments, building clarity--and now I'm going to have to read that Philbrick book myself! (I'd rather do that than see the movie, I'll admit....)
    Happy holidays to you and yours—and hope to see you again soon!

  15. Thanks, Art--best to you and family as well. And thanks for giving me the idea for this post . . .


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