Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Power Of Reading

I've been on a nice roll reading books lately. I always have two stacks in play at once: non-technical and technical. The latter backlog is always longer, because I've allowed the right side of my brain to atrophy a bit as I've gotten older. I used to be more balanced, but I've had to devote more care and feeding to my technical side to keep up.

It started when I fell ill in the beginning of March and was confined to bed for several days to overcome a fever. I had a lot of time on my hands. A friend at work was kind enough to loan me a paperback copy of "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" by Nathaniel Philbrick. It was one of those recommendations that I feared would be returned without being opened. I'd have to embarrass myself and explain why I hadn't bothered to give it a look if I didn't try, so I started reading it.

Was I wrong. I was engrossed in the first few pages and quickly fell into a reading trance.

The story of the Essex was well known at the start of the 20th century. It was the inspiration for Herman Melville's "Moby Dick". That name was on the tip of the tongue of every schoolchild back then. This book brought it back for me.

The Essex was a whaling boat that left Nantucket in 1819, at its height of economic power, in search of sperm whales. Whales were harder to find by that time, so captains headed around the tip of South America and into the Pacific in search of their prey. A whaling ship would be away for two or three years at a time. It was not a journey for the faint of heart: nothing in common with Princess Cruise Lines. I don't recall any mention of a midnight dessert buffet, but I might have missed it in my feverish state.

The descriptions of life on the boat were harrowing. I would imagine that the young men taken along to learn the trade suffered from some variant of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Killing a whale with harpoons, stripping the carcass with knives, boiling the blubber for oil, and storing it in the bowels of the boat sounds like one of the worst jobs ever invented.

The ship had only a quarter of its hold filled with oil when it was attacked by an unusually large whale and sunk off the coast of South America. It must have been a rebel that finally took the systematic murder of his pod personally. He rammed the ship, damaged the hull, and forced the crew into three whaling boats to survive.

The really hair-raising part of the story was just beginning.

They made poorly informed choices and ended up spending three months in open water on the Pacific. If only they'd known that a westerly tack towards Polynesia would have ended their troubles! The irony was that they feared Pacific atolls populated with cannibals. Instead they turned south and east, trying to make their way back to the South American coast.

Their only relief in those three months was a brief stop on a small, rocky, uninhabited island that provided some fresh water for drinking and tortoises for protein. Their food situation became dire enough to force the crew to resort to cannibalism. The captain shot his sister's son, along for the journey as a cabin boy, after he drew the short straw. They ate him with neither chianti nor fava beans.

Even worse, that man survived the journey and had to go home and tell his sister what had happened to her son.

It made me wonder how much of what we think of as our better nature is completely dependent on our ability to secure fundamental needs like sufficient water to drink, a regular supply of food, security from threats, adequate sleep, etc. All of us would be surprised at what we might become and how low we'd stoop given such horrible circumstances. So much of what we think of as civilization is dependent on the illusion that we can meet our needs with no more effort than it takes to walk into a grocery store and swipe a debit card in a reader. We're far more dependent on a fragile web of providers than we'd care to admit.

I enjoyed this book far more than I would have guessed when it was offered to me. It made me think of "The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea" by Sebastian Junger, a more modern take on the dangers faced by men in boats on the water.

After I finished "Essex", I went to the library in town and trolled for four more books. I'll write more about those soon.

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