FSG asked me for a short essay about summer reading, so I wrote about my love of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin novels, which probably constitute the best reading experience of my life. These books were the basis for the superb and criminally un-sequeled movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
The Best Imaginary Friends I’ve Ever Had
This summer I’m going to start rereading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, about life in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. This isn’t the kind of fiction I usually read, and yet my first pass through the series was the best reading experience of my life.
I’m not alone. Director Peter Weir, who eventually directed the movie adaptation, Master and Commander, used to plan for certain trips by determining how many O’Brian novels he ought to pack. David Mamet finished rereading the eighth book and said to his wife, “This fellow has created characters and stories that are part of my life.” Everyone I’ve met who’s read these novels responds similarly. Used book stores frequently don’t have copies on hand; one store owner believed that people who bought the books tended to keep them. And I recently got to know a writer three-thousand miles away when we shared enthusiasm for the series on Twitter. Captain Jack Aubrey and his companion, the naturalist, physician, and spy Stephen Maturin, felt like mutual friends.
I would see these books on the shelf when I worked at Barnes and Noble during college — a long row of similarly sized novels with pastel spines — and wonder who on Earth read them…
Continue reading at FSG’s Book Keeping
And here’s a good scene from the movie:
The novel I’m working on now is set in a supernatural colonial New England: an alternate early America with its own geography, history, and idiosyncrasies. So I get to make stuff up whenever I need or want to without some finicky expert crying, “Rhubarb wasn’t introduced to North America until 1789*!”
But I chose this era because I love it and want to live in such a place for the next several years of my imaginary life. So historical semi-accuracy matters to me, and fact is often stranger (and better) than fiction, and I plan to use whatever terrific details I find in the course of my research, which isn’t research in the negative sense of the word but crazy good times reading books about colonial taverns and war and criminal masterminds and bread riots and the like.
Which brings me to a question I incorrectly posed via Twitter last week: where to find a comprehensive list of 17th century profanity? I meant 18th century (my brain is stupid sometimes), but an old friend came through with an excellent answer: Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785). I found a $1 hardcover copy online and it’s just the ticket. Here’s a description:
A fascinating and hilarious collection of all the words and phrases that raised eyebrows in the 18th century. The original 1796 alternative dictionary of ‘The Vulgar Tongue’ educated readers in the correct usage of colloquialisms, slang and old English idioms. Includes those familiar entries such as ‘mealy-mouthed’, originally meaning over-modest, and revives classics that should never have been forgotten, such as ‘apple dumplin shop’ for a woman’s bosom, ‘nit squeeger’ (a hairdresser) and ‘flaybottomist’ (a teacher)…No true aspiring vulgarite should leave home without it.
You can read the later 1811 version online at Project Gutenberg: Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Some personal favorites after a quick perusal are ‘laced mutton’ (a prostitute), ‘duke of limbs’ (a tall, awkward fellow), and ‘resurrection men’ (grave-robbers employed by anatomy students).
* I made this date up. Which I can do in my world.