The best times of my life have been spent in imaginary places. Or real places that have been populated with imaginary people. I’ve learned more from great novels than from any history book or non-fiction treatise I’ve ever struggled through.
Humans thrive on narrative and storytelling – we make sense of the world by telling stories about it. The stories may be true, or myth or some combination of the two, but a narrative will always stick with me where a dry list of facts may not. Tell me a story, though, in words, or words and music, and I’ll remember.
Some of my best friends are fictional characters. They’re always there for me when I need them, getting into and out of the same scrapes and adventures, saying witty or silly or profound things, expressing their hearts in a way that touches mine. I’ve been a nerd a long time, and often a lonely one, and I’ve always found a friend in a book.
Maybe that’s why it is so hard for me to get rid of books. I used to be unable to get rid of books at all. I’ve gotten more ruthless about it, especially with new books (or books new to me.) If they don’t grab me right away, I ring the bell and shout, “Next!” (See the latest entry over there in the Snark Tank.)
But if the book grabs me, holds my attention, makes me stay up all night to finish it, well, it’s MINE, MINE I tell you! And will be for life. Nothing can induce me to get rid of books that have befriended me, helped me through hard times, and give me something new every time I reread them.
I love historical fiction and speculative fiction, and there are a few books in these categories that have changed my life, or, more accurately, become absorbed into my life – become a part of me.
There is only one series, however, that has very nearly spoiled me for all others. Reading anything else is really just a break from rereading these – the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin series: the extended tale of a British Royal Navy captain and his particular friend during the Napoleonic wars.
These are not easy books. The first especially requires a leap of faith – just suspend disbelief and trust that you’ll get it eventually.
I first came upon these books for kind of a silly reason – I have a strict “read the book before you see the movie” rule. Back in 2002 or so, I heard that Russell Crowe (and back then I was still in the throes of a pretty serious Russell Crowe problem) was to star in a film called “Master and Commander.”
So I marched off to the library and that book. And something told me I’d better take the next two in the series as well.
I sat down to read it, and I didn’t budge for about 14 hours other than to address basic needs. I remember thinking it was complex, the language hard to follow, but something about it just captured me. The book had a helpful diagram of a ship in the front, and a helpful scene where one of the seamen explained to one of the characters what many of the ship’s parts and the sailor’s expressions meant.
And as I got into I came to care very much about the characters, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, and struggled to savor the writing while fighting the impulse to read ahead quickly to discover what would happen next.
Here was a world recreated in great detail; here was honor, duty, adventure and a great deal of humor. Parts of these books made me laugh out loud, sometimes laugh so hard I cried.
I confess I haven’t read all of Jane Austen, but I know Patrick O’Brian was a fan of hers, and his books are like, you should pardon the expression, Jane Austen with balls.
I don’t know why I like books that contain famous battles or details of military history. I’m pretty much a pacifist – but I just love stories of brave people doing brave things in pursuit of what they perceived to be honorable goals.
I finished those first three books in less than two days and raced back to the library to grab the next four or five, because I couldn’t imaging the agony of having to wait for the next one.
The devotees of these novels who started with them when they first began to appear often had to wait two years between books. I think that might have broken me – I just had to know what would happen next. And while I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, I never really understood the impulse to wait outside a bookstore at midnight for the next installment – but I would have camped out for a week for the next one of these Aubery-Maturin books.
I’m a member of a Facebook group devoted to these books, where no one thinks it is weird that you use eighteenth-century language (“Give me joy!” or “I have the honor to report…” or “grass-combing bugger!” or “would one of you learned coves explain, in terms amenable to the meanest understanding?”) I’ve read the complete Aubrey/Maturin novels, all twenty of them, five times. (They are now mostly available as a complete set in a 5 volume hardcover, but you might be able to find the 20 individual paperbacks used online somewhere, and there’s a 21st, but it is unfinished and sad). I just can’t get enough of Jack and Stephen’s world, and I find something new in these books each time I reread them.
So, Jack, Stephen, you have spoiled me for all others; you have stolen my heart and earned my loyalty for as long as my eyes can read.
When I finished the series from the library, I was able to locate an online bookstore devoted to all things Aubrey-Maturin, and at what was then far too great an expense, as I was grossly underemployed at the time, enduring a sad and difficult time in my life, I purchased the entire set. They now occupy the shelf formerly occupied by my Mike’s chess books. When Mike was unable to read them or concentrate on them anymore, he piled them all into the car and drove them off to give them to a young man who was supposedly trying to start some kind of chess club or school, but who was unhelpful and singularly unappreciative of the effort this dying man took to deliver those books to him.
I kept a few of Mike’s poetry books, the ones that contained poems he shared with me and that we could discuss together, but a great many of the rest went to the hospice chaplain, who shared Mike’s love of poetry and whose friendship, right at the end of Mike’s life, was a great gift to us both.
That made room for me to bring my books downstairs, into our little library room. The speculative fiction I enjoy now has its own separate bookcase filled mostly with William Gibson and Neal Stephenson (Neuromancer my brain to entirely new places, as did Snow Crash. Sharing the shelves with Patrick O’Brian are Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series (absolutely hilarious – someone Fraser has managed to place his hero at every major British and American military engagement of the nineteenth century). Those are good and a nice diversion from the next go-round of O’Brian. McCullough eventually starts writing more like a Roman historian than a novelist, so for me that series kind of wore out, but the first two, The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown are especially good.
These worlds the authors have created or recreated refresh me, comfort me, keep me company and help me through hard times. When I have to come back to the world I actually live in, I feel refreshed, strengthened, but also supported, knowing that there are a few, a self-selected few thousand people on the planet, who love these books as much as I do, and the human connection that results from just knowing they are out there gives me hope and gets me through my days.
You’ll either get completely hooked on Patrick O’Brian, or you won’t get through the books at all. There really is no in-between that I’ve ever heard of with these.
So if you set sail, I give you joy and wish you fair winds and following seas. Let me know if you decide to embark, and if you sign on as crew for life with Captain Jack.