Ten Real Shipping Books

The general public’s awareness of maritime continues to be elusive. People without exposure to maritime have a vague notion of what ships do, but the knowledge is almost always superficial. Maritime is complex and therefore it takes a large investment to become deeply familiar with the dynamics of maritime in all its facets.

This made me wonder if it would be possible to make a list of 10 books that provides a strong introduction to maritime. These are not the 10 best maritime books, but rather a collection of books that contain a large part of the information that provides the reader with an understanding of the length, breadth, dynamics and human aspects of maritime. They are not listed in order of quality or importance, but rather in a roughly chronological fashion. While there may be fictitious characters or events in some of these books, the maritime details in these books all are true and correct and thereby are great sources for acquiring real maritime knowledge.

1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

This is a recent novel by David Mitchell and it deals with the isolated Dutch trading post in Nagasaki around 1800. It is not completely maritime (actually it is a love story and also has a few very minor maritime errors) but it very carefully describes the social dynamics that created the middle class in so many countries that developed maritime trade. Love it as a novel or not (I also loved it as a novel), it shows that trade was the province of a relatively small number of people, but that the effect of even a little trade could be incredibly significant to the way societies develop.

2. An Aubrey Maturin novel (the Nutmeg of Consolation)

Patrick O’Brien was called the best living author when he wrote his series of Aubrey Maturin historical novels. They describe naval combat and maritime life in the early 1800’s and there is no more enjoyable way to learn about it. All of the 20 1/2 novels are great, but I picked The Nutmeg of Consolation, because I like the name, it has all my favorite characters including the Surprise, and because, on a very subjective level, I think the series really came together in this book.

3. In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

A list of books like these need to provide a description of the total horror that can occur at sea. This book by Nathaniel Philbrick is the true account about the survivors of a sperm whale attack on a whaling vessel. The vessel sinks and the crew submits to unimaginable depravations to survive. It has been suggested that this event was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but this one is the real thing.

4. Two Years Before The Mast

There might very well not be a more important American book than this book by Richard Henry Dana Jr.. The book is a simple memoir of a young well educated man deciding to sign on as a hand on an American merchant vessel from the US East coast around the Cape to California and back before the Gold Rush. But without hyperbole, and with a very clear humanist eye, Dana shows that despite the magic of it all, all is not well with the treatment of ship’s crews. When Dana returned home he worked very hard at improving the employment conditions of sailors. Melville considered Dana’s description of the conditions at the Cape superior to anything he had ever written. Make sure you read the version that includes his return to California after the Gold Rush.

5. The Nigger of the Narcissus

Any Joseph Conrad novel provides a level of detail and deep truth to maritime that is unsurpassed. Almost any Conrad novel that mentions the sea fits in this list, but I picked this novel because it is a little shorter and because of the description of the knockdown. When I first read this novel I had no idea that ships could survive a knockdown like Conrad described and I actually did some research to verify his description.

6. Around the World Alone

It is possible that even Joshua Slocum himself could not really tell you why he sailed around the world alone. Yes, the story is a little puffy, but this is a great sailor explaining how things are done and the first to do it for real. I was tempted to give this slot to The Riddles of the Sands by Erskine Childers, an equally fascinating book by an equally fascinating author, but Slocum was first, so he gets the slot.

7. The Sand Pebbles

Possibly my favorite novel of all time. It was written by Richard McKenna, a retired Navy Petty Officer, and deals with a fictitious almost forgotten US Navy vessel on the China station between WWI and WWII. The book was an instant success and of course spawned the great movie, but its greatness is related to the incredibly clear description of the crew’s interactions and loves, be they related to the engines, command or the people ashore.

8. The Cruise of the German Raider Atlantis

Very strangely I have not encountered any books that, by themselves, provide a compelling description of WWII, but this book comes very close. Bizarrely it provides a very admiring true account of the cruise of a German commerce raider written by Joseph P. Slavick, a US Air force officer. It is an incredible true story, but, most of all, shows that, despite the horrors of war, sailors can comport themselves honorably and to the highest standards of seamanship on both sides of a conflict. I first became aware of the story when I saw the model of the Atlantis built by my friend, and WWII US Navy veteran, Henry Schaefer a few years ago. I wondered why he picked a model of a vessel that was engaged in such devious activities. He handed me the book and the rest is history.

9. The Box that Changed the World

Recently a number of different books telling the story of containerization have been published, but this book by Arthur Donovan and Joseph Bonney is the best of the bunch. It has great sweep and it has data that shows what containerization has meant to the world. But most significantly, it has pictures! And only pictures can convey this revolution that occurred in the last few decades. Even economists as famous as Paul Krugman still have not been able to wrap their heads around the transformation of containerization. Choochoo’s and even the telegraph mean nothing compared to the historical sweep and influence of maritime.

10. The Shipping Man

So after all of this magnificence about the past, has maritime become a faceless backwater? This novel by Matthew McLeery, shows that shipping is just as wild and crazy today as it has always been and will still befuddle and intrigue a landlubber. Even though the quality of the writing is a little rough, it shows in almost hilarious fashion why knowledge of shipping is important, if only to keep from losing a fortune.

In rechecking the list I find it intriguing that, while most of these books were written by true dyed in the wool maritime people, a few were not (Mitchell, O’Brien and Slavick). It shows that one does not necessarily have to live the life, and that careful study of the subject can provide a huge amount of expertise and insight.

Photo credits: The Henry Schaefer model of the Raider Atlantis photographed by Melissa Fingado, Franky Juliano and Noemi Valdetano.