Junior napping on the bookshelf

Book recommendations, strongly worded

Junior napping on the bookshelf
Junior napping on the bookshelf

We read a lot (the royal we, and refer to yesterday’s post for more on that). Sometimes I finish reading a book, and immediately want to buy five thousand copies and air drop them all over the city. Here’s a list of those, with reasons why I feel so strongly about them:

Raising the Dead: I was obsessed with the story of Dave Shaw’s dive into Boesmansgat, to recover the body of Deon Dreyer, a diver who had died there, long before it crossed my mind that diving was something I could do myself. My obsession at that time was with the contrast between the attitudes of Shaw – who told his wife that if he died diving, she should leave his body where it lay as he would have left it – and the parents of Deon Dreyer, who were unable to gain closure around their son’s death until his body was recovered. Apart from providing much spiritual food for thought, the book is suspensfully written and gives an excellent introduction to deep technical diving. The fact that it recounts events that took place in South Africa is a bonus.

Deep Descent: This book gave me nightmares, and introduced me – a naive and ignorant newly minted recreational diver – to a kind of diving that both horrified and fascinated me. Kevin F. McMurray’s account of the spell cast by the 70 metre deep wreck of the Andrea Doria, and the cachet attached to bringing back treasure (crockery, cutlery, etc.) from this isolated wreck in the north Atlantic Ocean, is completely absorbing.

EnduranceAlfred Lansing’s account of a 1914 attempt to cross the Antarctic continent by a group of British adventurers, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, is gripping. Apart from the wholly surprising quality of individual that the expedition (and other polar explorations of the time) attracted, what actually took place – and how it was resolved – is one of the truly remarkable examples of survival and ingenuity, and sheer persistence in the face of an implacably hostile environment. The book draws heavily on the diaries and accounts of the crew of Endurance, giving it a journalistic, immediate feel. I think my father would enjoy this.

Mapping the Deep: Robert Kunzig won awards for this account of the state of ocean science, and rightly so. It is essentially a translation of the pivotal scientific discoveries related to the ocean over the last several decades – into language that I can understand. He introduces the individuals who shaped our knowledge of the oceans today, and provides a historical context, too – in some ways similar to Stars Beneath the Seabut with more concern for the science and less for the quirks of the individual (although these are also in evidence).

Neutral Buoyancy: Divemasters in training should read this book, if only for Tim Ecott’s highly accessible account of decompression theory. But this is far more than a translation of dive science into layman’s terms. Ecott turned to diving as a way to recover from the death of his mother, finding it transformative and therapeutic, and from a very personal perspective explores the history of the sport, the life of the oceans, and some of the many and varied underwater locations worthy of exploration.

The Sea Around Us: Rachel Carson’s book can be seen as a precursor to Mapping the Deep (above), but even though some of the ocean science she describes is now dated, her writing is resoundingly beautiful. The first chapter reads like a science-infused creation myth, with the same linguistic grandeur as the book of Genesis. Much of what Carson writes about is still current, and the book should be read as a classic of nature writing. It has the power to inspire even people who don’t care much about the sea. Carson herself was a pioneering woman and I wish I could have met her. Read the commemorative edition with images, if you do get hold of it.

The Unnatural History of the Sea: The experience of reading this book is somewhat akin to being punched in the gut, repeatedly. Callum Roberts meticulously traces one thousand years of human exploitation of the marine environment, using catch records, logbooks, diaries, letters, and – later – scientific studies. In so doing he introduced me to the idea of “baseline creep” (an idea attributable to fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly). In short: our idea of the natural abundance levels of all marine species (except maybe urchins) is completely off base, informed by an inability to think back further than 60-70 years.

The Outlaw Sea: Let William Langewiesche school you on  just how wild and unregulated the high seas are. You’ll learn about piracy, flags of convenience, terrorism, shipping disasters, and shipbreaking. This deceptively short volume is one of the most fascinating, enlightening books I’ve ever read about man’s activities at sea. Everything in it was unfamiliar to me, written in a compulsively engaging style.

Surf Science: In this book Tony Butt taught me just about everything I need to know about tides and wave formations. He builds up, step by step, a model of how waves work on planet earth. Mind expanding! The book is written for surfers, but since good diving and good surfing on the same day are generally mutually exclusive, this is a very useful book for divers, too.

FlotsametricsCurtis Ebbesmeyer’s book is a blend of oceanography and memoir, and is a fascinating and beautiful primer on ocean circulation. His recollections of a long and fruitful career are expertly interwoven with the science, and I enjoyed every aspect of this book very much indeed. It has wonderful maps – get it in hard copy.

Everything by Thomas Peschak – particularly Sharks and PeopleCurrents of Contrast, and Wild Seas Secret Shores of Africa – is good. He is a photographer with an extremely well-formed theory of how photography can assist conservation efforts (hint: he appears in basically none of his own photographs). His work is original and extremely beautiful, and he has travelled to some of the most visually arresting parts of the planet to bring back stories of the threats and hopeful possibilities facing the marine environment. He is also thoughtful, scientifically literate, and able to string sentences together quite wonderfully. His books are the complete package and I cannot recommend them highly enough. For aspiring photographers, he always includes a brief section at the end describing how he got each picture, his aim, and some technical details of the gear and settings he used.

Carl Safina is another author whose entire oeuvre can be recommended almost without reservation. In particular, Song for the Blue OceanEye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, and The View from Lazy PointThe latter book provides an intimate account of the seasonal changes at his home on Long Island Sound, and combines it with a global perspective informed by visits to marine locations from Alaska to Belize, threatened by climate change and pollution. He always writes from a position of profound humanity, with reference to the people who depend on the ocean for economic and nutritional benefit, and is practical but uncompromising in his calls to action.

We can’t always travel as much as we’d like to (and I think we are very fortunate in being able to travel at all), but being able to read has a similar effect of broadening one’s horizons – without leaving the comfort of the couch!

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.