“There is no frigate like a book,” said Emily Dickinson, “to take us lands away.” I’m not sure how Dickinson really knew this; since she barely left her room except through her imagination, she didn’t have the experience to make the comparison. I’ve traveled a lot both by physical conveyance and by the printed page, and I have to say that nothing beats the real thing. But the best books do bring us very close to the real experience, and especially when they take us to a land away that we have no chance of visiting in person, we all sense the exhilarating voyage of discovery that Dickinson had in mind.
But then, how did Patrick O’Brian know how to write such vivid depictions of life aboard a sailing ship? As far as nineteenth-century naval experience goes, O’Brian was as homebound as Dickinson. And yet he pulled it off, time after time. This morning I read a chapter from The Thirteen-Gun Salute, the thirteenth offering in the Aubrey-Maturin series, in which nothing seemed to happen. Jack Aubrey’s Surprise spotted a prize ship, chased her, and lost her, accomplishing nothing by this distraction from the actual mission. When I finished the chapter, I wondered for a moment why O’Brian had led me through the episode. Would the prize ship come back into the story? Would the delay cause other problems for the heroes? My next thought, though, reminded me that no matter what the answers to those questions would prove to be, O’Brian had taken me on an adventure I would never have the opportunity to experience first-hand.
I was there in the Irish Sea. I saw the dim, blue expanse of first light, when the eyes unable to distinguish sky from sea perceive only undifferentiated distance. I felt the frustration of a crew regretting the lack of wind and felt the sweeping oars in my hands, their handles smoothed by thousands of rotations in sailors’ calloused palms. I tasted the salt water splashing over the rail and the fresh rainwater that poured down during a gale. During the fastest part of the chase, I heard the hum of the lines and the gentle whipping of the edges of the sails, the shouts of information from the lookout on the masthead, and the work songs of the Sethians. And I smelled the coffee, the fish, even Dr. Maturin’s surgical instruments.
There is no frigate like a book. So what can surpass a good frigate of a book about frigates?