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Michael's Picks


The books I read tend to be nonfiction, and at the moment they seem to have a common theme which is what I might call "Nonfiction Techno-Thrillers" – books that have a technical bias or point of interest but also tell a good story. That's part of what makes reading fun for me, a narrative thread which makes the story interesting, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. And because all through high school and college I was a commercial fisherman – my mother's family were fishermen, including her father – I also have a particular interest in books about the sea.


Nautical Nonfiction Techno-Thrillers

The Perfect Storm The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
The Perfect Storm is an account of a once-in-a-hundred-year storm in the Atlantic and how it affected the fishing community and others, but primarily one boat which comes to a bad end in the storm. I found it resonant of some of my experiences, though of course we worked in and around the Columbia River, so I never experienced an Atlantic storm. But the lifestyle and the depiction of the fishermen felt real to me. And in the background, Junger gives a scientific account of the storm: what creates a storm, and how it impacts the human environment and the natural environment. That seems to be a common theme through some of these books.

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue SeaShip of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder
This one also has at its central point a storm. It's about a gold ship sailing from California to New York just prior to the Civil War. First, Kinder tells the story of the ship, which sank in a storm off the coast of the Carolinas. Then he gives a modern account of the attempt to locate it using the historical record and knowledge of the currents and tides; once found, he recounts their attempt to raise the treasure, which was worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The attempt required figuring out how to go down to the bottom of the ocean and pick up a coin, something delicate, a technology which at that point was nonexistent. So you have two stories here: one of the storm and the sinking of the ship, which was dramatically told (and where I think the strength of the book lies), then finding the ship, raising the gold, and all the technology that was necessary to do that.

LongitudeLongitude by Dava Sobel
I've also recommended this book to many people. It's an account of the man who developed the technology which allowed sailors to determine their longitude at sea. If you don't know where you are, it's hard to know where you're going, whether you've gotten there or if you've missed your target. If, while sailing around the Pacific Ocean, you need to navigate toward some small island to find food and water, grievous things can happen if you're wrong. And grievous things did happen. Dava Sobel's book is an account of John Harrison, who spent his life (in the Eighteenth Century) perfecting a timepiece which was accurate to seconds in various climatic conditions – moisture, barometric pressure, etc. – all of which prior to that time had imposed serious technical limitations. You couldn't put a clock on a ship in those days because the ship pitched so much it would throw off the mechanism or destroy it entirely. You needed, basically, the perfect pocket watch, which Harrison invented. It was a thing of beauty as well as a huge leap forward technologically. The famous minds of that generation all thought the answer to determining longitude would be found in the stars, by using the sky as a map. Harrison believed the answer would be mechanical, and to find it he had to solve metallurgical problems as well as miniaturization problems, all of which he did in a small workshop in a remote part of England, competing for a prize from the King when the odds were stacked heavily against him.

The MonitorThe Monitor by James Dekay
This fascinating book is an account of the ship that defeated The Merrimac, or at least fought it to a draw, in Chesapeake Bay in the early part of the Civil War. Had The Merrimac been successful in breaking the Union blockade, both trade and European recognition for the South might have followed. The Monitor reached the Bay on the day it needed to be there, fought the battle, and prevented all of that from happening. This occurred due to a man named Ericsson, Swedish by birth, more recently from England then the United States, an inventive genius who always felt somewhat thwarted. But when confronted by this challenge, he produced the thinking which resulted in the creation of the first modern battleship, one ship which represented dozens of technological leaps forward. Ericsson built it with the combined industrial strength of the North in only 120 days or so. It's a great story, well told.

Rising Tide Rising Tide by John Barry
This one is probably my favorite, the book I would recommend as the most serious of the lot. It's an account of the Mississippi flood of 1927 and how it changed America. When the river flooded, it was possible to travel in a boat, east to west in the South, two hundred miles. The book is an account of how engineers had tried to control the Mississippi for the preceding hundred years and the conflicting theories about how to do that, the attempts and relative success prior to 1927, and how those attempts failed ultimately in '27. The subsequent flooding produced the worst national disaster in American history, resulting in an unknown number of deaths, assumed to be in the thousands. Barry explains how it affected the economic, social, and political environment of the Deep South, predominantly the Delta area. The novelist Walker Percy's family was a dominant force in the Delta at the time, and that's another storyline here – how that powerful family dealt with the flood and the rising power of the Ku Klux Klan. So the book, by talking about the flood, also deals with the politics of the region, immigration, race, its impact on the cotton industry, and ultimately how it made Herbert Hoover President and Huey Long Governor of Louisiana.


And One Nautical Fiction Recommendation

The Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester
C.S. Forester was a British writer who wrote from the thirties through the fifties. He wrote a lot of short stories for The Saturday Evening Post, but his main work was a series of novels centered around a character named Horatio Hornblower. (Gregory Peck made a couple movies out of them. More recently, there were some BBC productions based on the younger Hornblower. Very well done, actually.) The Hornblower titles are wonderful books for young adults. I still remember what shelf they were on in our public library. Were that library still standing I could almost walk you blindfolded to those books. Those weeks were probably the happiest of my life, when I discovered those books and just blazed my way right through them. Good nautical adventures with a self-deprecating hero, the appropriate amount of action, and sparse storytelling. I think they make an interesting, and not unfavorable contrast to Patrick O'Brian's nautical fiction, whose plots are more complex perhaps, but I don't find them nearly as satisfying. I'm always happy to recommend Forester as gifts for younger readers. Every time I've given them I've gotten shiny-eyed thanks from the kids. I reread them every three or four years.

On June 16, Michael submitted his picks. The next day, I had a chance to sit down with him and talk about them – about the common themes among the titles he'd chosen and how, if at all, those themes related to books in general. I worried that I might be putting him out a bit, taking up his valuable time; his schedule doesn't allow for much hanging out in the course of an afternoon. But for just that reason, perhaps, he seemed to savor the chance. "This was fun," he told me. "No one ever asks me about books anymore. They ask me about the business. Which I understand, of course, but books are really why I got into this line of work in the first place." – Dave

Dave: An underlying theme of your choices is technology and how it's affected and changed the way people live and work. How has technology changed Powell's?

Powell: Technology in many ways had passed the book business by until fairly recently. Initially it impacted inventory control, infrastructure sorts of things, customer service issues. Then now of course it's created this Internet vehicle, which has greatly accelerated trends and changes in the business over the last five years. Now with online book dealers, technology has had an enormous impact on the book business as a selling medium, but it's also beginning to have an impact on how books are produced, what is and isn't in print. Are books going to be available in print format or in electronic format in the future? I suspect it'll balance out, there'll be some of everything, but the bound book is still the preferred vehicle for most people.

The Internet is also teaching us to completely reconsider the value of any given book. It used to be that an obscure text of some kind or another might sit on our shelves for years. Maybe or maybe not. Selling locally, even with the tourist business we get and the people who make special trips from farther away, some books just didn't find their audience. But we're discovering that there is a demand for these books. And it's gratifying to be able to put those books into people's hands, books they didn't know existed or books they thought they've never been able to find.

I think it was Arthur Schlesinger in the store years ago, who'd written a few works on the Kennedys. He was convinced he knew of every biographical work about the Kennedys that was available, then he found three books on our shelves that he didn't know existed.

Dave: One of the fun things about working here is hearing these stories, seeing people come here for the first time and watching their reaction when they're standing in the Green Room, staring up at that big hanging sign that maps all the rooms.

Powell: The fun of all this is the stories. My favorite is when one time at two in the morning I woke up to a phone call from a man in the store. He asked me if I was the Michael Powell of Powell's Books. I said, "Yes." Not knowing what in the world someone would be calling for at that hour. I was still half-asleep. I figured something must be terribly wrong. The man told me, "I seem to be locked in your store." He'd been reading in one of the aisles, sitting on the floor, and I don't know if he fell asleep or just got caught up in his books, but at some point he realized that we'd closed and everyone was gone. He was alone.

There's something to be said for a place that inspires that kind of devotion. Just the fact that you could lose yourself, that the shelves are so big and there are so many of them that you wouldn't be found. I suppose there'd be an alarm now, but not back then.

Dave: So what happened?

Powell: I drove to the store and let him out. As embarrassed as he was, I think he had quite a bit of fun.

Dave: See, it's stories like that. It's hard to explain Powell's to people who've never been here. We try to humanize the web site to help people understand who we are, but unless you see it. . . After our last newsletter, we received two letters asking if the people on our site were real or if we made them up. Someone actually wrote me a letter to find out if a "Dave" really existed here.

If there was one thing you'd want people outside the Northwest to know about Powell's, what would it be?

Powell: I think the breadth of the inventory, how many choices there are. That we don't have a couple hundred books on British history, we have in the thousands. Virtually any interest or enthusiasm can be matched. This is a place you can go where there are a lot of interesting books under one roof. And we're adding titles and replacing titles on a daily basis, so it's fresh every day.

Dave interviewed Michael Powell on June 17, 1999 in the Powells.com office above the Couch Street Annex.

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