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Sunken Treasures: Books About Survival At Sea

by Jake Halpern
Jul 8, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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'Robinson Crusoe' 'Life of Pi'

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"Three Books ..." is a series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.

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 headwind blew us back against the rocks. We survived — narrowly. Afterward 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. Here are my three favorites.

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'Endurance'

Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, paperback, 288 pages

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 who, after being marooned near Antarctica, hopscotched across ice floes and braved Arctic waters in lifeboats.

Shackleton soon realizes that the gravest danger isn't drowning; it's mutiny. But the captain 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 question during my own small brush with nautical disaster. But dude — who am I kidding — some fantasies are best lived out in books.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

'Robinson Crusoe'

Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel DeFoe, paperback, 304 pages

Daniel DeFoe's classic novel, Robinson Crusoe, reads like nonfiction, with pages upon pages devoted to the details of how Crusoe raised goats, made pottery and grew corn.

It's 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.

'Life of Pi'

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, paperback, 348 pages

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 has decided to relocate both his zoo and his family by ship. But when the weather turns bad, Pi ends up in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and 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.

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