I have missed you. Due to the new schedule, it has been aeons since Tobias allowed me to post anything. But now my patience has paid off, and I have you all to myself for a week!
’tis the Christmas season, and if you’re a writer who goes through the gift-giving traditions of Christmas every year, you’re probably expecting to find at least one book under the tree.
I love acquiring books, and I am hopeful of my chances of acquiring some more on December 25th. But I seem to acquire them at a much faster rate than I can actually read them.
Unlike many writers, I didn’t really discover the joys of reading until I was already in my twenties. In my teenage years I fairly scorned reading (apart from Star Trek apocrypha) and thought, with the arrogance only possible in teenagers, that I didn’t have anything to learn from contemporary authors, even those writing the kind of books that I wanted to write.
Since leaving university I’ve come around to accepting that I am the merest novice, and I’ve learnt to welcome the lessons in the art of writing that can be gleaned from devouring as much fiction as possible. As such, I buy a lot of books. If I see rave reviews of a fantasy novel by an author I haven’t heard of, I’ll usually order it on Amazon (or get my bookseller sister to get it for me half-price 😉 ). I also have a big back-catalogue of classic fantasy to get through. Until a year ago, I hadn’t read anything by Neil Gaiman or George R.R. Martin, and I have a lot of catching up to do to get through all of the excellent fantasy that was published during my arrogant teenage years, or indeed before I was born. And as a history graduate who wants to write fantasy that’s very historically-informed, I also buy a lot academic texts.
All of this tends to pile up.
Currently, amidst the ever-expanding entropy of discarded chocolate wrappers, scrap paper, unwashed teacups, and loose change on my desk, I have unearthed:
- Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
- Herodotus’s Histories
- Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful Arabian-inspired fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon (artfully arranged here on top of a novelty flashing Santa hat)
- The City Stained Red by Sam Skyes
- Simon Armitage’s translation of Le Morte d’Arthur
- Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom
- Marvel’s 1602 by Neil Gaiman, on long-term loan from my sister’s boyfriend
- The Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
- The Incorruptables by John Hornor Jacobs
- The Terror by Dan Simmons
- The Iron Ship by K. M. McKinley
- Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
- The 722-page academic behemoth Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James
- William Shakespeare’s ‘The Empire Striketh Back’ by Ian Doescher
And (inexplicably) the dog-eared manual for Star Trek: Starfleet Command III, a PC game which came out in 2002, and which I haven’t played for at least half as long…
On top of all of those estimable volumes, though, is The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian, and therein lies the problem.
Out of that entire list of books, I have read only three from cover-to-cover: The Empire Striketh Back, (because it’s hilarious) Throne of the Crescent Moon, (because it’s amazing) and The Incorruptables (because I read it one sitting and couldn’t put it down). The rest are lying about forlornly under sheafs of paper, in various stages of chronic neglect. Perhaps I can be forgiven for not having finished the meatier academic books on the list, but I feel a certain guilt about seeing The Iron Ship or The Promise of Blood accumulating dust when I’ve only peered inside their covers once or twice before putting them down in favour of another book. And the ‘other book’ is almost invariably by Patrick O’Brian.
I love Patrick O’Brian. The Times called him ‘the greatest historical novelist of all time’, and I’m not inclined to disagree. If you don’t believe me, just listen to award-nominated British YA and adult author Lou Morgan! (who I follow on Twitter!)
For those who don’t know (and there can’t be very many of you, given how many times I’ve mentioned him on this blog), Patrick O’Brian was the author of the Aubrey/Maturin books, a series of historical novels starting with Master and Commander and ending with The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey. It’s always hard to describe a series without bias (and without going into too much detail) when you think it’s among the greatest works of literature ever conceived by the human mind and committed into prose, but I’ll try.
At their core, the Aubrey/Maturin books are about a Royal Navy captain in the Napoleonic wars, and his friend, a surgeon and scientist who is also a shadowy operative for Britain’s intelligence services. The series is naval military history at it’s very best, but it is also so much more than that. Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin go on voyages around the world, confounding the naval enterprises of Napoleon, but also struggling to overcome the human faults that make them into such interesting characters. Jack struggles with his weight, his finances, and his conceptions of honour, while Maturin suffers the ravages of drug addiction, depression, torn loyalties, and an unstable marriage. Their adventures are a sublime journey through history and through the human condition, with bold forays into naval warfare, but also into romance, philosophy, scientific discovery, and abstract existential musings on every subject under the sun. They’ve become two of my favourite characters in fiction.
Most of the action takes place on ships at sea, which is a setting that O’Brian brought to life in vivid detail, drawing on his amazing reservoir of technical knowledge about the age of sail. His characters navigate the world, crossing oceans, rounding Cape Horn and passing through the freezing southern latitudes in almost every voyage, against a constant backdrop of everyday naval life:
‘the old pattern fell into place again, and the ship’s routine, disrupted by the violent, perilous race eastward through sixty degrees of longitude, soon became the natural way of life once more, with it’s unyaring diet, the cleaning of the decks before full daylight, the frequent call for sweepers throughout the day, the piping of the hands to witness punishment on Wednesdays (reprimand or deprivation of grog; no flogging so far in this ocean), the ritual washing of clothes and the hoisting of clothes-lines on Mondays and Fridays, quarters every weekday with a certain amount of live firing still, mustering by divisions on Sunday, followed sometimes by the reading of the Articles of War…
…Day after day they travelled slowly over a vast disk of sea, perpetually renewed; and when, as the Diane was approaching Capricorn at four knots, Captain Aubrey ended church with the words ‘World without end, amen’, he might have been speaking of this present voyage: sea, sea and then more sea, with no more beginning and no more end than the globe itself.’
As a reader, it’s easy to let yourself be lulled into the same comfortable routine as the characters. The books are laced together with masterful character arcs and strands of overarching narrative that draw you gently onwards, making it easy to coast from one book to the next without intending to.
This can become a little bit of a problem, considering the length of the series.
O’Brien wrote twenty Aubrey/Maturin books before he died, leaving another unfinished. Twenty-and-a-half books is a lot of books. I’ve been reading this epic saga since January and I still haven’t got further than the fourteenth installment. It’s been hugely enjoyable, and I’m sure that my own writing has benefited immeasurably, but I’m beginning to wonder if too much exposure to one author’s writing style can start to be a bad thing.
For writers, reading books is necessarily a case of monkey see, monkey do. You can tell what an author has been reading by looking for clues in their own writing, the same way that forensic scientists can find out what someone’s been eating by analysing their hair. After reading his books for almost a year, all of the clues in my writing point to Patrick O’Brian.
Everybody has a favourite author, but I think it’s important to diversify the books you read, just as it’s important to…diversify the foods you eat…if you want to have strong hair….? This metaphor is creaking slightly, but I hope you understand what I mean.
The late great Sir Terry Pratchett said that authors should ‘read with the mindset of a carpenter looking at trees’, and the best way to do that is probably to venture out into the forest and look at as many different trees as possible, rather than admiring the same tree over and over again because you like it’s particular shape or the way that the moss grows on it. As such, I’m going to make a concerted effort to tear myself away from the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin, and launch some exploratory forays of my own, into the umplumbed depths of my bookcase, uprooting lost books from the bottom of piles and actually getting around to reading them. I may blog about the results. And I encourage you to do the same!