I was a reader before I was a writer. Apparently I was an imaginative child…but, now that I think of it, most children I’ve been around have had great little imaginations, if one is willing to pay attention to them and engage those tiny adventurers where they are at. But, I digress.
My reading has diminished of late. Part of it is the press of life, in all its expression of work and family require attention, much of which is expressed simply in time. It is not fair to my wife or kids or the critters to not have some positive interaction with me. I mean, of those three, only my wife has volunteered to be around me. Too, I am diminished by not spending a part of my day reminding myself who these people and pets are that I love, and why I love them.
The other impact to my own pleasure reading is, of course, the novel. I can’t help but feel guilty if I’m enjoyably browsing, instead of cracking open any of the many bits of research I have piled on my desk, from diaries to academic treatises heavy enough to be used for ballast.
That being said, today I was musing on the works I keep giving away. For a while, there were three titles that I was forever pressing on innocent acquaintances, telling them, “This is a great book!”
Oddly, for a fiction writer, only one of the three was fiction, while the others were non-fiction.
Watership Down is simply one of the finest novels I have ever read. During my arrogant teen period (which lasted nearly twenty years), I resisted Richard Adams’ splendid act of creation, scoffing that a story about rabbits was asinine. The ass was me, by the way. I’ve re-read the book nearly once a year ever since (one of the very, very few works of fiction I revisit), and the tale of common rabbits and their brilliantly imagined lives and mythology never fails to bring tears to my eyes. I think I like best how the characters display what I call “ordinary heroism,” simply by finding within themselves the courage to do what needs to be done, not for their own glory, but for the sake of their friends and their homes. Real heroes move among us quietly, even now in this clammy age where we know Paris Hilton’s ever gynecological detail.
Shadow Divers and Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea are both non-fiction stories of discovery in the ocean. Divers recounts the accidental discovery of a lost German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey, while Ship tells two parallel tales: the sinking of a paddlewheel ship in a hurricane near South Carolina about a decade before the Civil War, and the inventor who rediscovered the wreck and was able to salvage immense amounts of gold bullion and historical artifacts from the site.
Those bare blurbs don’t really do justice to either book, trust me. The two men who found the submarine were weekend cowboy divers who regularly went to the edge of their physical ability with scuba gear, akin to extreme sports enthusiasts, more interested in bragging rights about their feats than anything else. As time passed, the divers began to see the wreck as something more important than their own egos. They end up expending time, energy, and their own money trying not only to identify the wreck for its historical significance, but even traveling to Germany to bring word to relatives about the fate and final resting place of their loved ones.
Ship of Gold tells a more complex story by giving us not only the discovery of the wreck, but a gripping, emotional retelling of how that wreck got there. The recounting of the loss of the paddle wheeler, the heroic efforts of the passengers to save her, and experiences of the survivors adrift in the ocean and their near miraculous recovery is worthy of a book by itself. At the same time, there is the contemporary tale of a boy inventor, Tommy Thompson, who just liked to make things, and how he drifted into treasure hunting mostly for the sheer challenge of it. Prior to Thompson’s efforts, many treasure salvage operations essentially vacuumed up the sea floor, destroying the historical artifacts in pursuit of whatever gold or jewels could be recovered. Thompson build amazing remote-controlled devices that operated at depths never before possible to reach, with such advanced capabilities they could accurately record the site and recover treasure without destroying or materially affecting the wreck, leaving it essentially intact for further scientific and historical research.
What I like about both books is that they were the stories of people found there was more to their lives than simply what their experiences could do for their own self-aggrandizement. It was brutal, hard, dangerous work (three people died during the course of mapping and surveying the submarine site), but it became about more than them. One could argue that Thompson was well rewarded by his treasure salvage of the wrecked paddle wheeler, but I feel the exacting care he took to preserve the wreck suggests he was as interested in the historical value as he was the monetary.
What books do you keep giving away?