Today I am beginning a new blog series on Novels That Every Christian Should Consider Reading. Only the Bible is a “must read,” so put these in the category of “should consider reads.” Over the next couple of weeks I will post one or two entries a day.
The first contributor is Kathy Keller.
Kathy holds an MA in theological studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has worked as an editor for Great Commission Publications, and presently serves on the staff of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, where her husband, Tim, is senior pastor. In Redeemer’s early years, Tim preached and Kathy was the entire staff; now she serves as assistant director of communications.
Kathy writes below about a series of books—which can also be considered one long novel—that will leave you “forever dissatisfied with poorly written fiction.”
Patrick O’Brian, the author of the 20-book series of Aubrey-Maturin stories set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, was famously reticent about his personal life. Judging by the competing narratives that came to light shortly before and after his death, it was a complex one. Following C. S. Lewis in The Personal Heresy, I do not care a whit. The man could write a story.
If it would not be a breach of contract, I would stop writing here and re-direct any reader to David Mamet’s piece in the New York Times along with George Will’s retrospective in the Washington Post and consider my duty done.
Mamet’s and Will’s admiration was reserved for a writer who could tell a good story, and in this they regard Patrick O’Brian as one of the masters. The long tale of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s friendship, adventures, marriages, successes, humiliations, strengths, and weaknesses is one that will become a part of you. The follies and glories of human nature are recorded with humor, insight, and tenderness. I often think that if I am confined to bed in my dotage, I will ask to have my favorite books, whom I think of as friends, stacked up in bed with me, just to handle and hug to myself, as Mamet said.
I stumbled across the O’Brian books one summer when I was looking for a cache of books to take on vacation. No trip could rightfully be called a vacation unless I had at least half a dozen unread books to pack among the bathing suits and sunscreen. I was particularly delighted to discover what looked like a good writer with a long tail—meaning he had already written a LOT of books, so that if I did discover that I liked his writing, there would be no waiting for the next installment to come out.
I bought three, just to give them a fair trial, and by the middle of our second week away I was calling back to the bookstore in NYC and begging them to FedEx the next five or six in the series so I wouldn’t run out before we returned. Since then I have read all 20 four times through, and am about to embark on another marathon.
I am completely ignorant of sailing in all its incarnations (ancient, modern, recreational, naval, etc). As O’Brian has made use of historical diaries and letters, as well as mastering the sailing jargon himself, each story is liberally peppered with “loosening the foretopsail” and “shipping the capstan-bars,” and other nautical expressions. As Stephen Maturin, physician, spy, and friend of Captain Jack Aubrey, is also an unreconstructed landsman, this should not be an impediment to enjoyment of the story. If you do happen to understand sailing terms, so much the better for you.
Critics rightly regard all 20 books as one long story. So make no mistake: I am not recommending ONE novel to you, but the entire series. To my friends with whom I have waxed passionate about their joys and perfections, and who have tried to get interested and failed, I can only say “You didn’t give it long enough.” Like people who say they just can’t get into The Lord of the Rings, you just have to take it on the word of people you trust that if you get into the rhythm of the writing, the use of language, the overarching story arc, and most of all, the friendship (LOTR and PO’B) you will be drawn in, enriched, entertained, changed, and made forever dissatisfied with poorly written fiction.