I suppose I am one of these annoying people who have six or seven books going at any one time, usually scattered around the house so that something sits within easy reach in every room. Years ago, I also kept a book or two in my car and read when stuck in traffic or when halted by those pesky traffic lights, but I take driving more seriously now.Visit Bill Streever's website.
Almost always, it seems, I have at least one book that I am reviewing for a newspaper. As a writer, I enjoy the focused and purposeful reading that is required in preparation for book reviews, and I relish the sense of being part of the publishing industry and the writing scene that comes with reviewing the work of other authors. One recent standout was Dangerous Work, which I reviewed for the New York Times. It was written by Arthur Conan Doyle as a journal of his time on an Arctic whaling vessel, well before he found success through Sherlock Holmes. By good luck, I happened to be at sea when I read the book, and having spent time in the Arctic myself and having worked on whales and seals in my life as a biologist, I found an immediate connection with Doyle’s words. I kept reading passages out loud to my wife, who was at sea with me and who is also a biologist. I am sure I made a nuisance of myself, but Doyle’s words reached across more than a century to land on firm ground.
I read as part of the research for my own writing, too. I am starting work on a book about gold, and to prepare I have been wading through the huge literature that has accumulated during centuries of gold rushes. Some of it is well known, and some less well known. One book that I especially enjoyed was Kathryn Morse’s somewhat academic work, The Nature of Gold. Among other things, her book dispels the myth of the Klondike prospector as a self-sufficient wilderness survivalist by tracing the long and complex supply chain that provided everything from tools to canned foods to rubber boots.
And of course I read both nonfiction and fiction for pleasure. Most recently I read Nothing to Envy, about North Korea from the viewpoint of defectors to the south, and China Road. The world is unbelievably large and diverse, and books like these give me a window through which I can glimpse experiences very different from my own. These particular books left me feeling very grateful for the privileged life I live, but they also made me want to pack my bags to see first hand if what I read rings true when experienced first hand. And both books—all good travel books, I think—left me feeling more knowledgeable, better informed about these complicated times in which we live.
As to fiction? I reread passages from Moby Dick at least every few months. And lately, I have been drawn to other nautical novels. A few days ago I burned through one of Forester’s Hornblower novels—Hornblower and the Hotspur. At one level, the Hornblower series is a boy’s adventure series, but on another level it offers insights on leadership, self-doubt, and perseverance. There are, too, some great passages about the realities of sailing and of bringing a large, lumbering, old-fashioned sloop about without being caught dead in the water and locked in irons. And the fact that Hornblower is subject to seasickness adds a bit of humor, at least in the minds of those of us who are not subject to seasickness.
I could go on. And on and on and on. Unless one has a great deal of discretionary time at one’s disposal, asking a writer to talk about the books he or she is reading is never a good idea.
The Page 99 Test: Cold.