Monday, December 12, 2011

re-read: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick

I re-read this book all the time. It is probably the most-read book on my shelves, with the exception of Tony Hillerman, which is my ultimate comfort reading. I try to go back to Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend at least once a year, but don't always manage it. In the Heart of the Sea, though, I'm picking up about once every six months. I knew I'd be heading right for that bookcase in the upstairs hallway as soon as I got back from the Whaling Museum.

In 1820, the whaleship Essex, out of Nantucket, was rammed and sunk by a giant sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean. The survivors piled into three whaleboats and tried to make it to the coast of South America or any nearby islands. One whaleboat was lost and, in the other two, those who survived only did so by eating their companions. Herman Melville read the account of one of the survivors and based the final scene in Moby-Dick on the story.

I am obsessed with true stories involving cannibalism. I suppose I could blame my friend whose father gave her Alive! to read at a very young age, but however this weird fascination of mine started, it means I have read everything to do with Sir John Franklin, and the Donner party, that I can find. (If it's cannibalism in a freezing climate, it's even better.) So naturally the story of the Essex is one I'm drawn to, but I return to the book as often as I do because Philbrick is amazing. He writes so clearly, so immediately, so beautifully. It's a quick, absorbing read, and every time I return to it I feel that something new jumps out at me. I can't recommend it highly enough, even for people who don't normally read history.

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