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What is it about the sea that has made it a literary obsession since The Odyssey?


For me, it’s the mystery, the thrill of adventure, the fear of the horrible beasts lurking under the waves, and the dangerous men lying in wait just over the horizon. It’s the visceral feel of the wind and the waves, the raw smells of saltwater mixed with fuel and fish and fear, where the weather is a capricious character, and the ships are lonely fortresses against the unknown. 

But I find the strongest appeal in how the sea shapes and reveals a person’s character; it can raise men and women to the heights of courage or plunge them into the depths of madness. Who doesn’t know their names: Ulysses, Jason, Ahab, Larsen, Nemo, Queeg, Bligh, Blood, and Aubrey, as well as pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read? 

It is probably no coincidence that the sea inspired the first American novel, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot. It also inspired my debut novel, The Hunt for the Peggy C, a World War II-era historical fiction about an American fugitive who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by an unstable Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge. 

Here are seven books–fiction and non-fiction–that examine the thrill of life at sea, for good and evil. You’ll notice a common theme: rich historical details blended with superb reporting and writing, something I admire as a former journalist and try to emulate. Not surprisingly, many of them have been made into movies . . .

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