Storytelling is intrinsic to the sea. Ever since man learned to navigate great distances he has been entertained by telling and listening to stories. And although it is true that life at sea can be tedious and solitary, it is in those long hours where things happen. There is no empty time (as Edward Hopper made clear); there is time when the wind fills the sails in a certain way or the wake of a ship sounds rougher than ever. Things happen at sea, if you don’t believe this just ask Ahab or Odysseus, the Ancient Mariner or old Marlow.
It is said that every great book is an answer to another. Certainly, many books about the sea have inspired another journey, which in turn has inspired another book. The more one reads about the sea, the more one understands the interconnection of the great library of the ocean. Mariners and writers have been able to create an enormous literary body over the waves.
The following list is an infinitesimal selection of the existent marine corpus, and it does not focus on genres or literary periods. It is, however, a good vessel to set out to the sea by the hand of the greatest literary captains.
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Of course: Moby Dick, which despite few have been able to reach its end, has enormous rewards. Very few sailors have been utterly bewitched by the call of the abyss like Ishmael, who lives “tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.” This consecrated novel contains some of the most overwhelming passages —in the most poetic sense— about the immensity, madness, indifference and wholeness of the sea.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Samuel Taylor.
A long and narrative poem that, for many modern readers, has superseded both Homer and the Bible as the first and deepest source of our maritime imagery. The ancient mariner, like the sea, is condemned to repeat himself, and to hold the memory of all the ghosts that have sojourned its waves.
Poems of the Sea, ed. D. McClatchy
This is a poetic anthology, yes, but few volumes have managed to contain as many nautical fears, dreams and nostalgias in a single, beautiful and pocketsize book. The legends of pirates and mermaids, the ghost ships and the sunken city of Atlantis inspired as many imaginations as lighthouses and shipwrecks, algae and icebergs did. Everything is here.
The Sea Inside, Philip Hoare
In this book of essays, Hoare (who previously wrote the wonderful Leviathan or The Whale) makes a collage of memories, cultural history and travel logs, and a pilgrimage to increasingly distant oceans to swim with whales and dolphins. He also describes literary and artistic figures, scientists and adventurers that have left traces in the locations he visits through his expeditions. His narration is clear and vibrant “Running like a braid of coloured water through the whirls and eddies of The Sea Inside is the author’s inner struggle,” comments Caspar Henderson for The Guardian.
The Waves, Virgina Woolf
Woolf’s most experiment novel, The Waves is considered a poetic jewel. Even if it does not speak directly of the sea, it speaks of that “oceanic feeling” which Freud spoke of, and the lyrical prose evokes a feeling of continuity in a sea of disassociations. We, together with the characters, are ocean, sand, coral, algae, driftwood, tides, swimmers, children and the waves.