“Time won’t leave me as I am, but time won’t take the boy out of this man”--”City of Blinding Lights”, U2

Monday, August 22, 2005

Book Shelf: Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin Series


One of the things that I’ve wanted to do on this blog is to share about some of the books that I’m reading. My reading tastes are somewhat varied. At any given time I read two books at a time: one for pleasure (usually fiction) and one book for professional growth. Generally I read the pleasure book at a faster pace (in part because I’m enjoying them more) but also because professional growth books require a different kind of reading. I’ll post comments about the books that I'm reading under the name "Book Shelf". The “fun” books will probably have shorter reviews (except this first one), but I’ll try to post longer comments of the professional reading.

First up: The Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian. These books will be familiar to most readers through the movie Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World starring Russell Crowe. I had heard great things about these books prior to the movie’s release but as naval warfare and the Napoleonic Era are two subjects that haven’t interested me before, I didn’t pick them up until the movie’s release. I picked up the first novel (Master and Commander) from the library and read it. The naval jargon was difficult. Usually my fun reads are in the realm of brain candy—not much thinking required. I had to work a little bit with this book, particularly as O’Brian’s style of writing (particularly the dialogue) is very cinematic. If you can’t understand the terminology, it is hard to visualize the action or know when a scene has changed. I enjoyed the book but took a break and didn’t pick up the next novel for several months. At some point I picked up the second novel of the series, Post Captain, and got hooked. I read the complete series, all twenty books, took a week off, and started all over again. In other words, I read the complete twenty novels twice, back to back.

I got hooked to these books for a several reasons. First, once you can work past the naval jargon (I picked up a companion dictionary) and don’t worry that you won’t always understand every term, you will find that O’Brian is a wonderful author. The heart of this book lies in the friendship of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, two very different but very strong friendships. The bond of friendship is as strong as it is in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (between Frodo and Samwise). Secondly, the history drew me in. The Napoleonic Era was always to me that confusing time in history when war raged across the European continent when various countries allied for and against Napoleon. (Spain against France or for France? Yes. It depends on when…) I didn’t know a lot about the war that raged across the seas. Christopher Hitchens calls this time the “true and real ‘First World War’ because it extended itself to every ocean and almost every nation, not exempting this one.”

But as a UM pastor I was struck by similarity in the British Naval Captain and the United Methodist Pastor. Aubrey is constantly concerned with having a “happy ship” knowing that his effectiveness as captain and his effectiveness depended on how the people viewed him and how happy they were with his leadership. The Naval Orders (curious mix of ability, patronage, navigation, and survival) are reminiscent of the Appointment system. The Captain serves as the king representative, with the Admiralty providing oversight (Bishop, District Superintendents, Board of Ordained Ministry). Pastors just don’t have the kind of authority that Captains did (who could flog their crew for indiscretions.

The best of the series was the first, but all twenty really should be seen as one complete novel. Start with Master and Commander, pick up a naval dictionary if you must, and enjoy these books. I was sad that Aubrey’s voyages had to end.

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