MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Where to go for all things on shipwrecks? Well, that's the theme today for our series, Three Books. Here's Jake Halpern on his three favorite reads about shipwrecks.
Mr. JAKE HALPERN (Author): Once, just once, I persuaded my wife to go sailing with me. We were in Northern Poland, and for just $8, I rented a gorgeous wooden sailboat. It looked as if it had been preserved for decades in a giant glass bottle.
Can you sail it, inquired my wife. Dude, I told her, no problem. This, of course, was a lie. We were barely 50 feet from shore when a howling head wind blew us back against the rocks. We survived narrowly. Afterwards, my wife quipped that it was almost as if I had wanted to shipwreck us. She may have been right.
Ever since I was a kid, I've longed to be a castaway. I memorized facts about the Bermuda Triangle, learned to distinguish between flotsam and jetsam, and watched "Gilligan's Island" with cultlike devotion. My parents were landlubbers. Their notion of nautical adventure was ordering shrimp scampi at Red Lobster. And so I sailed the high seas in books.
My favorite was Daniel DeFoe's classic novel "Robinson Crusoe," which reads like nonfiction. There were pages upon pages devoted to the details of how Crusoe raised goats, made pottery, grew corn. Not very sexy, I admit, but that's the point. Crusoe is stranded on this island for 28 mind-numbing years, and his survival depends on his ability to build everything he needs from scratch. The story builds slowly, realistically, drawing us in and then, by the time the cannibals arrive, you're in a cold sweat.
Yann Martel's "Life of Pi," a much more recent book, is like Robin Crusoe on a bad acid trip. The narrator, Pi, is the son of an Indian zookeeper who chooses to relocate both his zoo and his family by ship. The weather turns bad, and Pi ends up in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Sounds like the setup for a bad joke, right? What ensues, however, is a deadly serious narrative, detailing a 227-day journey in which Pi struggles to stay alive. Martel's absurdist nightmare is spellbinding.
Shipwrecks, of course, are not always a one-man endeavor. Alfred Lansing's "Endurance" tells the true story of Ernest Shackleton and his 27 men. After being marooned near Antarctica, they hopscotched across ice floes and braved Arctic waters in lifeboats. The gravest danger, Shackleton soon realizes, is not drowning, but mutiny. Shackleton has a preternatural gift for reading men's minds. He has emotional intelligence of the crusty, old seadog variety, and he deftly keeps his men from losing hope.
I suspect that virtually anyone who has ever stepped foot on a boat has wondered, if it sank, could I survive? In other words, am I as resourceful as Crusoe, Pi or Shackleton? I suppose I flirted with that very question during my own small brush with nautical disaster. But, dude, who am I kidding? Some fantasies are best lived out in books.
NORRIS: Jake Halpern is the author of "Fame Junkies" and "Braving Home." His recommendations for reading about shipwrecks are "Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel DeFoe, "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, and "Endurance" by Alfred Lansing. You'll find details on these three reads in the books section at NPR.org.
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