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
Perfect Storm by Sebastian
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.
of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary
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.
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.
Monitor by James
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.
Tide by John
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.
One Nautical Fiction Recommendation
Hornblower series by C.S.
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
Dave interviewed Michael Powell on June 17, 1999 in the Powells.com office above the Couch Street Annex.