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What Should I Read at Sea?

Marc McEntegart By Marc McEntegart Published on June 25, 2016

There are few things on earth that inspire the same sense of awe and wonder as a long sea voyage. Today is International Day of the Seafarer, a day on which we celebrate those bold enough to have taken a career at sea, far from the safety and security of land.

That said, the sea isn’t the vast unknown it once was. For many of us, the briny depths seem an attractive alternative to a terrestrial world whose politics and economics always seem stacked against us. On the open ocean, the only law is the law set down by your captain, whose iron will governs your every action. It may not be a perfect system, but you know where you stand.

In the light of recent political events, a retreat to the sea is looking increasingly promising, but few of us are prepared for the maritime lifestyle. What follows is a list of books that will help you navigate the potential difficulties of a life at sea.


1. Herman Melville: Moby Dick

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Herman Melville’s oceangoing classic is often cited as a book that many start and fall away from without finishing. For the most part, this is a result of the lengthy sections of the book given over to marine biology. While these are a fine way for the average reader to educate themselves on the up-to-the-minute cetacean science of the mid-19th century.

The meat of the story, however, is given over to Ahab’s obsession with getting revenge on the whale that cost him his leg. Ahab’s vendetta against the whale is presented through the more reasonable lens of Ishmael, whose fascination with whales is well established.

In the hundreds of years since its first release, Moby Dick has become so deeply embedded in pop culture now that you probably already know the broad thrust of it, but it is a book that leaves the reader wondering whether man might be the ocean’s most fearsome monster...


2. Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

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Jules Verne may be better known for his 19th century travelogue, Around the World in 80 Days, but Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea gives a fascinating insight into life not only on the open ocean, but below the waves. There, the crew and passengers of the Nautilus are free to live out their lives far from the oppression of land-based governance.

For the scientifically inclined, it’s worth noting that the “twenty thousands leagues” of the book’s title refers to leagues travelled beneath the waves. For those whose interests are purely depth-based, you would do better to read Verne’s earlier novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Over the course of their adventures, the submariners are beset by the horrors of the deep. While they face very real dangers and sea monsters throughout the book, the coldest depths of Captain Nemo’s hate are reserved for the men he believes have wronged him… leaving us to to wonder whether man is the ocean’s most fearsome monster.


3. Homer: The Odyssey

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Homer’s epic story of Odysseus' desperate quest to reach home has survived for more than 2,000 years. In that time, life on the sea has changed little. The ocean remains a roiling chaos of monsters and danger, punctuated only by scattered islands of civilisation that are as unappealing now as they were then.

Unfortunately, the stops at these civilised islands are brief, often punctuated by violent encounters with the inhabitants. The Odyssey is a series of maritime adventures across an archipelago in which every new sighting of land seems to threaten the ship’s crew.

While the crew encounter monsters and natural disasters at sea, the biggest threats to Odysseus’ homeward journey are often the people he encounters along the way. Moreover, Odysseus often shows himself to be capable of a merciless brutality... leaving us to to wonder whether man is the ocean’s most fearsome monster.


4. H.P. Lovecraft - The Call of Cthulhu

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Probably the best known of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, The Call of Cthulhu tells the story of Francis Wayland Thurston, an anthropologist sorting through the possessions of a deceased relative. Among them, he finds a tiny bas-relief sculpture of a misshapen creature. This sculpture captures his imagination and fills him with a sense of abiding dread.

Thurston tracks down the sculptor responsible for the object, finding him already driven half-way mad by the eponymous “call,” drawing him beneath the waves. Originally serialised, the book covers a series of self-contained adventures with a broad theme of aquatic horror.

While Thurston travels from place to place, he comes finds himself pitted against terrible creatures and the cultists who follow them... leaving us to wonder whether man is the ocean’s most fearsome–

Well, no, probably not. In this case the real monster is almost certainly the misshapen god-creatures from the void between the stars alright. Man doesn’t really hold a candle to them.

Irish writer, editor, and capoeirista. Passionate about folklore, videogames, and communication. Editorial content writer at Bookwitty.