Thank you, oh thank you, Herman Melville, Yann Martel, Tim Severin, Thor Heyerdahl, Matthew Kneale, Ernest Hemingway and your brethren for filling my life with pleasure, joy and wonder. Thank you for expanding the horizons of a little girl from the middle of rural Ireland. Thank you for inspiring my passage through life.
When I was a child it was a running joke in our family that the only part of my mother any of us recognised were her ears, because her face was always hidden behind a book. She read while eating breakfast, drinking a cup of tea after meals, while the rest of us watched TV, before she went to sleep at night. She’s just as addicted to books today. My sister and I have inherited that same passion. The smell of a new book, the excitement of reading the first line, the thrill of rushing headlong through it, the longing for more when I reach the end, are indelible to my life. I feel slightly lost if I go somewhere without a book – the doctor’s surgery, a train journey, those ten minutes when I sit in a cinema on my own waiting for the film to start.
My daughters have that passion too. A couple of nights ago, I went upstairs long after the children’s bedtime to find Lily sitting up in bed, her reading light on, struggling through a book that was too advanced for her to read with ease. The tenacity on her little face as she strove to find meaning was transformed into delight when she got the joke of the diary entries of a funny little farmyard pig.
In honour of World Book Day (March 6th) I want to celebrate all those books that helped to awaken in me a love of the sea. Books that sing the romance, the wildness, the freedom of the sea. Books of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, books where the sea is omnipresent or where it is only briefly mentioned (Isabel Allende’s opening line to The House of the Spirits ‘Barrabas came to us by sea’ is enough to set my heart racing).
From the majesty of Herman Melville’s prose as he describes the workings of the whaleship and the passions of its maniacal captain (part of which I read while sitting on the rocky shore of west Hudson Bay, just metres from a skeleton of a beluga whale), to Yann Martel’s fantastical story of a boy and a tiger sharing a life-raft, these stories have made my heart soar and my body tingle with dreams of salt water.
The passion and enthusiasm of Tim Severin in The Brendan Voyage and Thor Heyerdahl in Kon Tiki sang to my wandering soul and taught me that I too could do what I wanted, against the odds, against better wisdom, if only I had the will to succeed.
Anthropologists Nonie Sharp, Edvard Hviding and Bronislaw Malinowski (among many others) have revealed to me the lives of people for whom the sea is home, light, memory; where the sea-floor is as well-known as the hearth, and where stars are the sign-posts of the ocean.
The sea takes as well as gives. Thank you Dougal Robertson for your memoir of shipwreck and survival, Nathanial Philbrick for your haunting account of the whaleship Essex, and Sebastian Junger for recounting the horrors of The Perfect Storm. Your books have instilled in me a healthy respect for the sea.
Jonathan Raban, Chris Stewart, Alan Villiers, you too have inspired me, your storytelling and joy of the sea and the characters who inhabit it have filled me with longing for the gentle rocking of a sail boat.
Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, your writing and illustrations for children have filled my heart to bursting. ‘How I long to sail, said the tiny snail’. And against the nay-saying of her friends, she sets sail on the tail of a humpback whale, and heroically saves the whale’s life. There is so much goodness packed into each word of that little book. And little Tiddler, whose imagination and storytelling abilities take him on adventures across the seas. I suspect that long after my daughters think they have outgrown these books, I will still find joy and inspiration in them.
I have neglected so many other books of the sea and the list of sea books I still long to read continues to grow. But I’ll end with the image of Seamus Heaney, driving along the Co. Clare coast, ‘the ocean on one side is wild with foam and glitter’ and where ‘big soft buffetings….catch the heart off guard and blow it open’. The sea, and books of the sea have done that to me.
So, what books float your boat?
Books referenced in this post: Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits; Herman Melville, Moby Dick; Yann Martell, The Life of Pi; Matthew Kneale, The English Passengers; Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea; Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage; Thor Heyerdahl, Kon Tiki; Nonie Sharp, Saltwater People; Edvard Hviding, Guardians of Morovo Lagoon; Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific; Dougal Robertson, Survive the Savage Sea; Nathanial Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea; Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm; Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau; Chris Stewart, Three Ways to Capsize a Boat; Alan Villiers, Captain Cook: The Seaman’s Seaman; Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, The Snail and the Whale and Tiddler; Seamus Heaney, Postscript.