On Reading Different Genres

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All of you have undoubtedly experienced types of books that you simply cannot read, or types of movies you cannot watch. In movies, for example, I have yet to be entertained by any film about organized crime--no matter how "well made" no matter how wonderful--they leave me cold. Two notable exceptions are the comedy Some Like it Hot which needs organized crime to drive the improbable plot, and Pulp Fiction which like most of Tarrantino is a live-action cartoon.

So also in literature, I am left cold by certain genres--two in particular. I have never cottoned to the "spy story." And to this date there has been no exception to this--Le Carré, Ludlum, Deighton, Hall, Buchan, Clancy, you name it, I don't care for it. This goes all the way back to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and even includes The Man Who was Thursday, which, while not strictly speaking a "spy" novel, partakes of too many of its tropes for me to really enjoy it. My dislike of it is so strong that it even includes redoubtable Golden Age Mystery writers like Agatha Christie who wrote some deplorable Fu Manchu-like "spy" stories. Now, I don't feel too bad about not liking this particular group of things--after all it is a fairly contained limited genre. Yes, it would be nice to appreciate Rogue Male and some of Greene's "entertainments" but if it is not to be so, I can live with that.

One that I find more disturbing though, and the reason for these thoughts, is sea stories. In this I have had a few minor breaktthroughs--Conrad's Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, Billy Budd and even some parts of Moby Dick. (I once read an edited version that removed all the flensing and rendering and whale anatomy and boiled the story down to its bare bones and found the whole thing a compelling allegory.) And of course, one of my favorite books of the Bible--Jonah--begins with a sea-story.

But, in particular, the sea stories I would like to like and would like to have reason to read are some that are extremely popular around St. Blogs (another reason for mentioning them.) I have tried now eight or nine times to make it through Master and Commander. Every time I am occasionally pleased by the language and invariably confounded with the glacial pace of the action. Page after page after page of a description of two boors at a chamber music recital. Or maybe they aren't boors, as I progress through the work. But what I lack is a compelling reason for continuing through the story. The movie version of these characters I found even more off-putting. As I have descirbed it to friends--a soggy Ivory-Merchant wannabe with characters out of Gosford Park.

Nevertheless, people whose writing I enjoy and whose insights I find notable enjoy these books. Some seem to enjoy them as much as I might enjoy Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. Good writing, is, after all, good writing. And it may be only a matter of time before I grow into an appreciation for these books. After all, it took me twenty years of trying before I became an ardent life-long admirer of Henry James and of Nathaniel Hawthorne. So, there's always hope.

What I'd like to ask as a favor is that those who truly admire the work write more about it. Cite passages, give me some insight into why these are compelling and interesting reading. Share your favorite moments. I'll be stopping by at least two places frequently. And I'll post the occasional reminder. I love the language of the books, now I want to have the drive to get over whatever it is about them that I find so alienating. That will require some introspection, of course. But, in all, it probably boils down to a lack of charity and a great deal too much judgment being exercised. That is usually the source of problems. And yet, I do, in some things follow the great Thomist line that knowledge brings an increase of love (I understand that the reference is to matters divine, but I think it is true of all matters not sinful). So, perhaps if I know more, I can break down my resistance and begin to appreciate an oeuvre that truly seems to be worth the effort. The tantalizing through of twenty unread books, presents a vista of possibility for me--a vista that I truly do want to explore. So I look for a reason.

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Steven has such an endearing request: He is asking us readers of the Aubrey-Maturin series why we like the books. I'll be coming back to this question myself over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I'm going to cross-post a review... Read More


"Well, this one time we're on an underway, and the captain has us riding out a hurricane, see, and me and Pink-Eye are trying to fix lunch in the officers galley, and the ship is rolling like a --"

Er, you do mean "sea stories," right?

How far have you gotten in the first book? Perhaps you might do well to skip the first and even the second books and try again with the third book, HMS Surprise. Some of the big story arcs really get going in Desolation Island.

Is it the technical stuff that gets in the way? I usually just skip that part, or if you simply must know what a studdingsail is, consider the companion book A Sea of Words. If Linda does not have a copy, perhaps she would like one.

I will try to post on this sometime and will let you know when I do.

I just finished volume 6 for the second time early this morning, having chosen it at random for recreational reading at the in-laws over the weekend. I'm surely no literary reviewer, but I can tell you that I dearly love these books. Some of the items that stayed with me on this second reading:

- the delight found in a man's mastery of difficult technical skills

- the Goodness and Beauty of true and honest friendship among men

- POB's engaging portrayal of early-19th century manners and conversations

- POB's exploration of Jack and Stephen's friendship; particularly, in volume 6, a paragraph of Stephen's thoughts on seeing in the moonlight a starved, wasted and sunburnt Jack in command of a lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic

- Jack's weevil joke

- Stephen's (POB's) always-accurate and frighteningly true assesments of human character; how character can be perceived and judged rightly using a Catholic anthropology

- Stephen's judgment of Audubon's bird paintings in 1813, particularly his comment on Audubon's turkey-buzzard.

And much more.

Cheers -


I first met Jack and Stephen in April 1998, and had read through the then-18 volumes in 6 weeks.

I think the sheer love of good friends, good food, good coffee, the occasional cigar, and good chamber music that comes through in every volume, plus the wealth of accurate period detail won me over.

One ought not overlook the consummate writer's art used in the novels, the playful toying with themes and characters from Shakespeare, Homer, Austen, Dickens, and Fielding.

I'm not a sailing person. On first reading, I didn't know a main topsail from an orlop deck (but I learned all of it thanks in no small part to Dean King etc"s excellent A Sea of Words). I also was lost on the medical terminology. But I sort of figured it out. I'm sure there are hidden jokes there that I have not gotten yet.

How accurate is O'Brian? Well, he uses two words "medico" and "politico" a great deal. Now I was certain that he was using anachronistic words. They sounded more like WWII slang to me. But I looked them up in the OED, and found that both words were in use before the Napoleonic Wars.

I applause your attempt to ascend this summit (yet again). Even though you have not found "Master and Commander" to your liking, you've gone in again and again. I am an occasional visitor to St. Blogs and Peony Moss referred this thread to me. Personally I was shocked when I found that I enjoyed "Master and Commander" so much as to re-read it several times and to go on and read the rest of the series (only one more to go). For myself, I enjoy these books not only for the language, or for the historical details but for the sheer enjoyment of his prose (kind of like sampling one's favorite food now and again); and or the fact that it has inspired to me learn more about this time period. I now am entirely diverted by programmes or books about Nelson, his times and these conflicts. Of course, I speak only for myself. Perhaps you should (as some have suggested) try the third (and my personal favorite) book- "HMS Surprise" or turn from this "vista" for awhile. Perhaps next time you look, it will appear different.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on December 30, 2004 9:35 AM.

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