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'Ship Of The Line': Sailing To Fantasy And Back

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'Ship Of The Line': Sailing To Fantasy And Back

'Ship Of The Line': Sailing To Fantasy And Back

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Dr. Abraham Verghese isn't just a Stanford Medical School physician. In his spare time-believe it or not, he has some-he writes novels. His latest, "Cutting for Stone," was widely praised by critics and popular with readers as well.

For our series, You Must Read This, where authors talk about a book they love, he recommends one of his favorite books from childhood.

Dr. ABRAHAM VERGHESE (Physician/Author, "Cutting for Stone"): When I was 10 years old, I went off to sea in a British frigate to battle Napoleon's navy and thwart his ambitions in Europe. I made this perilous journey, courtesy of C.S. Forester and his wonderful novel, "Ship of the Line."

It was in those pages that I first met Captain Horatio Hornblower, truly an unforgettable fictional character. More importantly, it was the first moment that I felt totally transported by a book, felt the little signals we call words do their magic alchemy, even though I had enjoyed reading well before that.

However, that book took me from the boredom of a school vacation ruined by rain day after day and transported me to 1810 and to the Catalonia Coast.

I understood for the first time that reading was a collaborative venture -Forester provided the words, I provided my imagination, and together we made a mental movie in which I had ownership.

Hornblower, the protagonist, was full of contradictions: loved to be at sea but was prone to seasickness, a brilliant navigator and tactician but awkward with women. I devoured the book, went back to the library and found it was one of a series, tracing Hornblower's career from lieutenant to admiral with many a setback and tragedy along the way.

Recently, in a bookstore, I found the entire Hornblower series in an affordable paperback set. I raced home with them and was overjoyed to find that the books kept me just as engaged now as when I was a boy.

My knowledge of sailing, of what constitutes a lee wind or what it meant to beat to windward was no better than it had been when I was a schoolboy, but the magic of being transported, of forgetting my world was still there.

C.S. Forester offered a powerful lesson, which I took away in writing my medical novel - detail provides authenticity, but it's not necessary and even detracts from the reader's experience to explain every last detail. What matters is that it is authentic detail.

And he showed that one can identify with a protagonist so removed from the world you live in as long as you find something universal, something archetypal about a character who is nevertheless quite unique.

Hornblower was larger than life, took actions I'd never have dreamed about, but he worried, he had a conscience, he fell in love, he was betrayed and he had betrayed in turn. He was, in other words, so very human.

Fiction, when it resonates in this fashion, is a truth-telling device. Indeed, it only works when it succeeds in doing that.

How life-affirming it is to find that the writing that held my attention as a young reader could still do that decades later.

Good writing, good stories live on in the reader's head, and they are easily renewed and become once again unstoppable like the ocean. They offer readers and writers a kind of, yes, immortality.

So grab "Ship of the Line" by C.S. Forester and then let's run up the flag, show the colors, hands to the braces, there is reading and writing to be done.

CORNISH: That was novelist and physician Dr. Abraham Verghese for our series You Must Read This. His pick is C.S. Forester's "Ship of the Line."

You can read about Horatio Hornblower's adventures and find our recommendations for the best books of 2010 at

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