ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Author Ethan Canin took a roundabout route to becoming a writer. He started straight forwardly enough. He majored in English and earned a graduate degree at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. But then he went to Harvard Medical School and became a doctor. For a while, he practiced medicine and wrote on the side.
Ten years ago, he gave up his practice altogether and he now teaches at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Canin remembers the book that helped him decide to become a full-time writer. It's called "Sacred Hunger," and it's his pick for our series You Must Read This.
Mr. ETHAN CANIN (Professor, Iowa Writer's Workshop): 1992 was a good year for the Booker Prize. It was awarded to "The English Patient." This book went on to become a favorite among literary readers all over the world and a landmark film that amazingly disproved the dictum that a beautiful book is always a disappointing movie.
Michael Ondaatje's novel is arguably the best-known title to have emerged from the Booker competition in the last 20 years, which explains, I suppose, why not many people remember that it actually shared the prize that year. That's right. "The English Patient," in fact, tied for the Booker with a novel that is still relatively unknown in America.
That second novel is called "Sacred Hunger." And I've rarely heard anyone who's read it call it anything less than magnificent. In my opinion, it's a masterpiece. It's written by the British novelist Barry Unsworth, and tells the story of the Liverpool Merchant, an 18th-century slaving ship that engages in the infamous triangle trade.
The largely conscripted crew carries firearms to the west coast of Africa and trades them there for slaves, who are packed in to a ship's hold with a ceiling so low they cannot rise from their knees during the entire Atlantic crossing. It's as brutal a portrait of human behavior as you're ever going to read.
I like my masterpieces straight up, and that's what this one is — 640 pages without a literary trick. Unsworth takes you up the humming mainmast, throws you sideways in house-high waves, chains you inside the foul underdeck where waves of human excrement slosh through the slaves' quarters as the merciless sea charted by the equally merciless captain rocks the hull outside.
And yet, at the same time, the book is also laced with a gentle, nimble understanding of the contrary impulses of human nature. Unsworth brings us into the minds of men two centuries dead, the minds of rummed-up sailors in the wharfside brothels of African villagers hunted by their countrymen across the hills of Guinea, into the minds of slaves in chains and of the men holding their keys. Of those who dream of profit and those who dream of God and those who dream, as many do in this book, of the two together.
I first came upon this book nearly a decade ago. It moved me as deeply as anything I'd ever read. It also inspired me to expand my own ambitions as a writer. When you write books, it pays to read great ones, to see how other writers have made the impossible possible. The scope of "Sacred Hunger's" adventure, the seriousness of its ideas alongside the haunting descriptions of the sea and the slaves and the slavers, the sheer massiveness of its imagination, it made me aware once again that there are two kinds of books — the ones that endeavor to slip themselves into the world we know and the ones that create their own.
SIEGEL: Ethan Canin is the author of the forthcoming book, "America, America." He's also written "The Palace Thief." You'll find more You Must Read This recommendations at npr.org/books.