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 importantl 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; courageous outwardly but full of self-doubt; a brilliant navigator and tactician but awkward with women and uncomfortable in social situations. 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.
The wonderful detail provided of the oceans and a working ship was key to the book. Phrases like the "piping of the rigging" or "the rattle of the blocks to the gentle roll of the ship " or that she was "close hauled again on the starboard tack" were not terms I knew, but I could guess at their meaning. It wasn't necessary to know what everything meant to take that journey as a reader, no more than it is necessary to be able to name every part of a fine sports car's engine to enjoy the ride.
Recently, in a bookstore, I found the entire Hornblower series available 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 a medical novel — detail provides authenticity, but it is 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 seems 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 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 still could 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 let's run up the flag, show the colors, hands to the braces, there is reading and writing to be done.
Abraham Verghese is a professor of medicine at Stanford University. His latest book is Cutting for Stone.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.