Good Reads: Life and death on the high seas

This post is part of a series recommending writing you should read — especially nonfiction.

Good writing can transport you to any time or place so seamlessly that you feel like you were actually there, actually experiencing those things. Since I learned to read at five years old, doing phonetic worksheets to a cassette tape in the kitchen and watching countless episodes of Come Read with Me, I’ve marveled at the ability of compiled shapes on a page to take me places I’ve never been.

Places like the high seas.

For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to nautical tales like Moby Dick and Treasure IslandTen Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was one of my favorite books in ninth grade and then, of course, there are the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, among various other seafaring films.

So when I found out about Nathaniel Philbrick’s book about the historical events that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick, In the Heart of the Sea quickly rose to the top of my reading list.


I would not classify In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex as narrative nonfiction — though the book is written well and it does follow the basic arc of a story. In the Heart of the Sea is very much a historical account. Philbrick goes into detail about the whaling industry, the growth of Nantucket, and various scientific and historical realities that relate to what the men of the Essex experienced before and after the whale plowed into their ship. It’s a dense book — there’s a lot of information to digest — but it’s not a long, slogging read. Philbrick’s writing keeps things pacing ahead.

Where In the Heart of the Sea falters are the places Philbrick takes editorial tangents. He at times overplays the contrast of Nantucketers as peace-loving Quakers on land and bloodthirsty killers at sea. He projects a twenty-first century sensibility on an island’s historical means of economic survival, which to me undercuts his credibility as a historian. (This treatment of cultures that kill animals to survive is, of course, nothing new.) This also doesn’t give the readers enough credit — we would make the connection ourselves as long as the contrast was demonstrated clearly enough. Part of the joy of reading is making connections the author intended you to make without the author telling you to make them.

On a five-star scale, I’d give In the Heart of the Sea three and a half stars, because the writing is solid and the subject matter is interesting. But if you’re looking for a book to send you on a journey, I’m not sure this one will do the trick. It’s more history than human narrative.


For more of a narrative experience, I recommend:

The Sinking of the Bounty by Matthew Shaer, The Atavist Magazine

This piece tells the true story of the Bounty, a real ship modeled after an 18th century ship by the same name (Mutiny on the Bounty ring any bells?), which sunk in the Atlantic during Hurricane Sandy. Tracing the steps and missteps of captain and crew, Shaer paints a vivid account of what happened bolstered by the backstory of ship and shipmates.

Have you read any nautical writing lately?

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