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Shipman's history books: Patrick O'Brian

My favorite addictive writer nowadays is Patrick O'Brian. Start with his Master and Commander, the beginning of a series which is approaching 20 volumes. Any good library should have them all.

Things I like about it:

There are two protagonists. Jack Aubrey is an English sea-captain, and a good scientist and engineer but only to the extent that these arts affect the sailing of a fighting ship. In tactics he is a devotee of Lord Nelson's saying, ``Never mind maneuver, go straight at 'em.'' Aubrey has made it a lot easier for me to see how Britain maintained its world-wide empire. The descriptions of the art of supplying, maintaining, and repairing these ships are fascinating to me---when you're in the middle of the Pacific, you'd better have your logistics together.

Stephen Maturin generally makes his living as a ship's surgeon and physician. Although he is one of the best doctors of his time, the descriptions of the practice of medicine in those days will make you very glad you were born in the 20th century. Much more than a medico, though, Maturin is a Renaissance man, and his travels with Aubrey allow him to express his many other talents. He is like a young, thin Ben Franklin, with fingers in many natural and physical sciences.

Since I'm a birdwatcher, I especially enjoy the accounts of such things as seabird colonies in the oceans around Antarctica. But Maturin is also an important player in the world of espionage. As a child of a Catalonian father and an Irish mother, he inherits from both parents a deep and abiding hate of Napoleon that compels him to do whatever he can to undermine the French. He's not a James Bond sort, though; mainly he talks to people, runs a few agents, and sometimes writes an inflammatory publication or two---what they call ``political work.''

All in all, a great read, with the individual volumes ranging in quality from very good to absolutely breathtaking. So far, just about every person to whom I've recommended these has liked them.

See also: Shipman's reading list: history and historical fiction
Previous: Shipman's history books: B. H. Liddell Hart's "Why don't we learn from history?"
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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 1999/05/09 20:04:47