Back in the Saddle and Out on the Water

Dear readers,

It’s me, Molly — your old reading companion. I’m back on the horse and ready to gallop through your inbox with regular installments. I’d like to thank my colleagues at the Book Review for — let’s force this metaphor beyond the limits of acceptability — keeping the saddle well-oiled and supple while I was away.

From now on, the Book Review crew (including me) will take turns with Read Like the Wind. This is partly because the rotation of the past months proved fun and festive, and partly because after writing about my favorite books for five years I’ve grown dangerously close to exhausting the back catalog. To protect the Integrity of Recommendation — all killer, no filler — it seemed necessary and good to turn this solo effort into a group show.

Onward to books. As an antidote to the summer heat, this week’s recommendations follow a refreshing oceanic theme. I hope you’ll join me for a salty frolic.


“Billy Budd,” by Herman Melville

Fiction, first published posthumously in 1924

If you’re keen to read a masterpiece about guys on a boat but don’t presently have the stamina for “Moby-Dick,” why not reach for “Billy Budd”? It’s a 90-page psychological thriller, not a towering epic, but it’s still top-shelf Melville — an author whose metaphysical might makes a lot of contemporary novels seem like cotton candy. That’s not snobbishness, by the way; just fair warning. I consider cotton candy a valuable element of the mental food pyramid.

Billy Budd is a sailor compelled into service on a Royal Navy warship, where his good looks and cheery attitude translate into near-universal popularity. The outlier is John Claggart, a senior officer who develops a spontaneous hatred for Billy and decides to punish and persecute him.

Claggart is afflicted with what you or I might call “psychopathy” and what the DSM refers to as “antisocial personality disorder,” but Melville’s three-page description of the type so far exceeds the DSM in precision and subtlety that I wouldn’t blame a clinical practitioner if she kicked the handbook aside in favor of Xeroxed pages from Chapter 11 of “Billy Budd.”

Though the book is slender, many of Melville’s trademark themes and touches are present. There is adventure, grandeur, woe. There is dazzling verbal ornamentation (Claggart’s fake smile is a “glittering dental satire”), bizarre aphorizing (“Consciences are unlike as foreheads”) and exalted images of fraternalism — like the scene where hundreds of sailors lay in hammocks packed so tight that there is “little or no swing to them.” All of this in, I’ll say it again, 90 pages. An unbeatable bargain!

A note on the text: Melville never completed “Billy Budd.” A draft was posthumously disinterred from his papers and subsequently published in numerous forms — none, of course, authorized by Melville. Curious readers can poke through an extraordinary online edition prepared by the Melville Electronic Library; it offers both a transcription of Melville’s original draft (easier to read than his handwriting) as well as later editions.

Read if you like: William Blake, Freud, the paintings of William Trost Richards, “The Scarlet Letter” (Roger Chillingworth makes a neat companion villain to Claggart — intentionally so on Melville’s part, I imagine, since he wrote “Billy Budd” after Hawthorne’s novel appeared)
Available from: Most anywhere. Bookstores, libraries or free online

“Breath,” by Tim Winton

Fiction, 2008

Credit where due: This one was recommended by my pal Graham, whose opinions about books and water are never wrong. The cover of my edition, above, initially caused me to mistake it for a motivational tract about breathing, which is actually one of the few activities I don’t need “motivation” to do. To my delight it turned out to be a dark coming-of-age novel set in 1970s Australia.

The comer-of-age is Bruce Pike, a solitary boy whose life takes a turn for the dramatic when he gets obsessed with surfing and falls under the spell of a mysterious wave-riding hippie. Within a short time Bruce is introduced to sex, drugs, jealousy, deception and the reality of death. Winton’s prose is utterly lovely and the plot quick, but this is not a beach read unless you go to the beach hoping to be haunted and disturbed by an account of adolescent intensity.

Read if you like: Kem Nunn, risk-seeking behavior, the TV show “Lodge 49,” bathymetry, Richard Linklater
Available from: A good bookstore or the library

Why don’t you …

Ask yourself why “Short Pamphlet That Analyzes the History of a Specific Set of Metaphors” is not a more common — no, a blockbuster — genre of publication after clinging to the mast of Hans Blumenberg’s “Shipwreck With Spectator”?

Celebrate one of the rare book-to-movie translations to unquestionably nail it with Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander” (2003), which takes its cues from the Patrick O’Brien series? Russell Crowe’s pigtail should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Hunt down a copy of Jack Rudloe’s “The Erotic Ocean” and refuse to answer questions when guests wonder what it’s doing on your coffee table? (They can find out for themselves.)

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Molly Young is a book critic for The Times, a contributing writer to The Times Magazine and the author of the newsletter Read Like the Wind. She was previously the book critic for New York magazine. More about Molly Young

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