Monday, December 06, 2004

On Reading At 40,000 Feet

Yesterday I returned from a trip to Halifax. Typical working weekend for me; I usually do this sort of thing twice a year.

Whenever I fly, I usually buy a book to read while on the plane. This time around, flying to Halifax I got ... Ulysses by James Joyce, the Penguin Books Centenary edition. I honestly thought I'd be able to get through it by the time the weekend finished up.

All it did was remind me why I scored a B- in first-year English. They'd given us Dubliners, and to be honest I can't remember a dang thing about that book.

I got through a fair chunk of it on Sunday, while washing up my clothes prior to packing. I suspect that the problem I have with Joyce is that his storytelling voice isn't consistent. That, and his refusal to use quotation marks, makes him a challenge to read. Some of the book even reads like they're transcribed from rough notes, with no refinement; that's really a tough one to get over.

It could be that Joyce isn't meant to be read in the winter. It could be that what you need to tackle Joyce is lots of sunshine, a lounge chair, a nearby place to swim (either the ocean or a swimming pool), sunglasses and sunscreen, and a bikini babe beside you. Or maybe that's just the onset of my winter blahs.

In any case, I found myself buying another book for the return flight rather than continue with Joyce: To Rule The Waves: How the Royal Navy Changed the World by Arthur Herman. This one had me spellbound, and not just because I have an interest in naval lore. The best historians are also generally the best storytellers, because people pay attention to a good story.

And the British Royal Navy is full of good stories, from the Elizabethan Age and the Spanish Armada to the Age of Nelson to even the Falklands War, which is the scope of this volume. It's a pity that Herman didn't see fit to look at the British Royal Navy in the 21st Century, but actually that's pretty sensible; it lessens the change of the book becoming dated.

Herman's prose is well thought out and his footnotes aren't arduous. He manages to take a hard look at the Navy's heroes without getting a mad-on for them as a lot of contemporary academics do; a balance between hero-worship and demonization is always desirable in a history book, and Herman meets this standard very well.

Hey, if a book's good enough to get me through 2 hours in coach just in front of a smelly head, plus a 1-hour layover in Toronto plus a final 1-hour flight, it's certainly good enough to recommend for Christmas reading.