There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and the sailor’s dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe.
—Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor’s Life at Sea
This month’s book salon topic was water, which was the theme of the summer reading programs this year at the San Francisco Public Library: An Ocean of Summer Reading.
I had intended to use this theme to celebrate my own personal Bay to Breakers (the Chesapeake Bay, that is) by reading two classic works of nonfiction, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by William Warner, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, and Two Years before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, which recounts Dana’s shipboard adventures in the 1830s. I’ve been meaning to read Swimmers since an ex-boyfriend recommended it to me when I moved to the Eastern Shore, but, like with my ex, Fate had other plans and the book remains one of the great unread on my shelf.
I guess it worked out well that I chose Two Years before the Mast since some of my Thanksgiving vacation was spent in Monterey and along the coast, which Dana describes so vividly. This book is a fascinating tale of life at sea and pre-Gold Rush California—it’s a shame more people haven’t read it. Although, not for nothing, but I bet if the cover still looked liked this, it would have far more readers.
Other books read by the salonistas include Billy Budd by Herman Melville, Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel García Márquez, and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. One person attempted multiple books, but apparently had the same reaction that I did to Wide Sargasso Sea. There may have been another selection that I’m forgetting, but I had had three martinis by the end of the evening, so I really have no idea what the sixth person read.
Which brings up the most important question of all, how did people function on three-martini lunches?