The best books about sailors

3 authors have picked their favorite books about sailors and why they recommend each book.

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Sailors

By Peter Earle,

Book cover of Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650 - 1775

Sailors — among my favorite books — is a vivid account of the lives of English merchant seamen in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were the years when England rose to dominance in global commerce and became the greatest naval power in the world. Acclaimed historian Peter Earle explores every aspect of the sailor's life: conditions of service, wealth and possessions, life aboard ship, the perils of the sea, discipline and punishment, sickness, desertion, mutiny and mortality, and the role of the sailor in times of war. Evocative, scholarly, and colorful, this story of England's "bravest and boldest" reveals how life on the waves was not all storms and conflict, tyranny and revolt, but also one of comradeship, adventure, and love of the sea.


Who am I?

Since the publication of my first book in 1988, my emphasis has always been on history as “story.” That is, the stories of men and women in past centuries with whom we share a common humanity but who faced challenges very different from our own. My goal is to bring their stories to as wide an audience as possible. Whether they describe Newfoundland fisherman in the 17th-century North Atlantic, expatriate Irish men and women in 18th-century Bordeaux, or colonial New Yorkers defying British authority on the eve of the American Revolution, the common theme is the impact of trade and the sea on the lives of ordinary people.


I wrote...

Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York

By Thomas M. Truxes,

Book cover of Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York

What is my book about?

Defying Empire reveals the story of the bold New York City merchants who engaged in forbidden trade with the French enemy during the Seven Years’ War — together with the fate of the lone informer who dared challenge them. Ignoring British prohibitions designed to end North America’s wartime trade with the French, New York’s merchant elite conducted a thriving business in the French West Indies, insisting that their behavior was protected by long practice and British commercial law. But the government in London viewed it as treachery, and its subsequent efforts to discipline North American commerce inflamed the colonists. Through fast-moving events and unforgettable characters, historian Thomas M. Truxes brings eighteenth-century New York and the Atlantic world to life.

Set to Sea

By Drew Weing,

Book cover of Set to Sea

This is a beautiful little book in an interesting format—a single image per page—that tells the story of a poet whose romanticizing about life on the sea is put to the test when he’s shanghaied and made part of a crew of sailors heading for Hong Kong. Don’t be fooled by Drew’s stunning cartooning that evokes the glory of the heyday of newspaper cartooning (think E.C. Segar, Walt Kelly, etc.); this is a book for grown-ups. 


Who am I?

I grew up and have often lived around water and ships—Norfolk, VA, Aiea, Hawaii, Savannah, Georgia—and I’ve always had a fascination with things nautical. As a cartoonist, I’m of course always on the lookout for comics that overlap with this interest. Curiously, these sorts of stories seem to be few and far between in the U.S. but more of a genre staple in Europe—France in particular. I tried to highlight here not just books that I particularly like, but books that are representative of the breadth and depth that the comics medium can offer in art style, tone, and intended audience. I hope you enjoy some of these as much as I have!  


I wrote...

Oyster War

By Ben Towle,

Book cover of Oyster War

What is my book about?

In the coastal town of Blood's Haven, the economy runs on oysters. Oyster farming is one of the most lucrative professions, but also the most dangerous. Not just from the unforgiving ocean and its watery depths—there are also oyster pirates to worry about! Commander Davidson Bulloch and his motley crew are tasked with capturing these ne'er-do-wells—but they don't know that Treacher Fink, the pirates' leader, possesses a magical artifact that can call forth a legendary spirit with the power to control the sea and everything in it!

Two Years Before The Mast

By Richard Henry Dana,

Book cover of Two Years Before The Mast

After studying for a couple of years as an undergraduate at Harvard, Richard Henry Dana dropped out to join the merchant marine in 1834. Over the course of two years, he sailed around the Cape Horn to California and back. In 1840, he published a personal account of his experiences entitled Two Years Before the Mast, which became an instant classic and offered a rare (and sympathetic) glimpse into the hardships sailors faced living and working on a sailing ship. You just cannot beat this book for an eyewitness account of the tiny (but profound) details of life at sea in the nineteenth century.


Who am I?

As an emigrant myself (I left Ireland in the late 1980s), I’ve always been interested in understanding the process of moving from one place to another; of existing in that liminal space between “being here” and “being there.” I spent several years researching the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century Irish migrants for my book, The Coffin Ship, but found the answers led to new questions on how other peoples, in other places, have managed being somewhere between “here” and “there.” These are some of the books that have helped me along that long, emotional journey.


I wrote...

The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine

By Cian T. McMahon,

Book cover of The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine

What is my book about?

The standard story of the exodus during Ireland’s Great Famine is one of the tired clichés, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, I offer a vibrant, new perspective on an oft-ignored but vital component of the migration experience: the journey itself.

Between 1845 and 1855, over two million people fled Ireland to escape the Great Famine and begin new lives abroad. The so-called “coffin ships” they embarked on have since become infamous icons of nineteenth-century migration. The crews were brutal, the captains were heartless, and the weather was ferocious. Yet, as my book demonstrates, the personal experiences of the emigrants aboard these vessels offer us a much more complex understanding of this pivotal moment in modern history.

The Last Detail

By Darryl Ponicsán,

Book cover of The Last Detail

In the early 1970s, when I was a Buck Sergeant in the US Army stationed overseas in Korea, I received a small package from my cousin. He was a year older than me and in the Navy and stationed at Subic Bay in the Philippines. What was odd about the package was that he seldom mailed me anything, and certainly nothing that would be more trouble than a brief letter. I opened the package and therein lay a paperback copy of The Last Detail.

The story starts out with Petty Officer First Class William Buddusky, better known as Billy Bad-Ass, passed out drunk in the Day Room in the barracks, still in dress uniform with an almost empty bottle of cheap wine next to him. Immediately, I recognized a kindred spirit. A lifer, an enlisted man, and somebody who lived in the real world of the military as I…


Who am I?

I spent 20 years in the US Army with 10 of those years in Korea. Everybody thought I was crazy. Why would you like being stationed in such an odd country as Korea? Whenever I tried to explain, their noses would crinkle and they’d stare at me as if I were mad. I started collecting books that explained better than I did. To supplement it I purchased a manual Smith Corona typewriter at the PX and to assuage my angst began writing mystery stories about two 8th Army investigators in Seoul, Korea. Fifteen novels and over 50 short stories later I’m still attempting to explain the odd beauty of GI life through the eyes of a GI.


I wrote...

War Women

By Martin Limón,

Book cover of War Women

What is my book about?

Sergeant George Sueño and his partner, Ernie Bascom, are stationed in Korea with the US 8th Army in the 1970s. They investigate crimes in which US Army personnel might have been involved. Meanwhile, George finds Korea and its culture fascinating, and does what he can to soften the bad opinion of Americans in Korea.

When a senior NCO goes missing with a top-secret document that even a glance at could get a soldier court-martialed, Sergeants Sueño and Bascom take it upon themselves to find him. Meanwhile, they are tasked with getting reporter Katie Byrd Worthington out of a Korean jail cell—and preventing the publication of a story about the mistreatment of women in the military that could incriminate important officials. But what they learn will make it hard for them to stay silent.

Fable

By Adrienne Young,

Book cover of Fable

This book absolutely blew me away and completely redefined great storytelling! My editor recommended it when we were talking about great new young adult fantasy books, and I will be forever in her debt for introducing me to Adrienne Young’s work. I love this world and heroine so much—Fable is scrappy, raw, vulnerable, clever, and immensely strong with just the right touch of magic. I recommend this book to everyone I know!


Who am I?

I have loved all things magical my entire life. I grew up leaving out food for the fairies and searching for gnomes in the woods, so it only follows that when I learned to read, I gravitated toward stories of fantasy and myth. I often felt that the worlds I read about matched my personality more accurately than the real world, and I longed to be one of the magically gifted heroines I encountered. I’m excited to share some of my very favorites with you, and hope they bring you as much joy as they did me!


I wrote...

Keeper of Scales

By Anne Mollova,

Book cover of Keeper of Scales

What is my book about?

A princess with a secret. An ancient evil rising. A kingdom caught in the balance.

Alyen, crown princess of Dúramair, has trained her whole life to be queen. She’s kept her Sight a secret, trusting that the Keeper of Scales will find an apprentice soon—for surely one other candidate can be found. But when news comes from the north of dark magic returning to Dúramair, Alyen is forced to make the hardest decision of her life. A decision that could determine the fate of her kingdom.

Lord Jim

By Joseph Conrad,

Book cover of Lord Jim

I read Joseph Conrad from my earliest formative years. Sometimes thick, but always drawn on real time at sea, Conrad wrote from experience and touched a nerve for anyone drawn to adventure on the high seas. Lord Jim stands out for its layers of real life so sensitively drawn, from a young chandler’s boy competing in a small sloop to reach the ships just over the horizon, to a disgraced young officer who jumped ship prematurely, afraid. By the time Tuan Jim faces the high chief, he has achieved what all adventurers admire, arrival at the true self. I’ve loved several Conrad books, and I suppose Lord Jim stands out because of Peter O’Toole’s portrayal that put me alongside, in the moment. 


Who am I?

I’ve written fiction for 60 years, scratching the adventure itch for exotic places, high seas, or converging oddities. I have wandered and taken note. The authors I love have influenced my worldview and my writing. I am a reef conservation activist with five volumes of reef photos and political narratives covering reefs worldwide. And I am an Executive Producer of The Dark Hobby, an award-winning feature film exposing the aquarium trade for its devastating impact on reefs worldwide. I live in Maui with my wife Anita, Cookie the dog, Yoyo, Tootsie, Rocky, Buck, Inez and Coco the cats, and Elizabeth the chicken.


I wrote...

Solomon Kursh

By Robert Wintner,

Book cover of Solomon Kursh

What is my book about?

A promising youth of the 60s veers to LSD and cosmic light. Stepping from university to cult life and pastel jammies, he chants and dances. Passersby laugh, and he laughs back, niched in bliss. Natural intelligence takes him to operational management, as labor and meditation define purpose for years, until...  Harsh truth drops like a turd in the punch bowl, a small one, but still. Would you like a cup?

He’d challenged the elders of his childhood. What did you do, when you had the chance? The question comes back, calling for strange absolution and justice served. Despairing a bleak future and potential wasted, he meditates on a bong like 1969 and phones a friend. The story resolves on endurance and revelation.

Crossing the Line

By Alvin Kernan,

Book cover of Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's Odyssey in World War II

Though less well known than Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed or Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary, this is one of the finest memoirs of World War II and one of the few by an enlisted sailor. At his death at 94, Alvin Kernan was a recognized expert on Shakespeare with long years on the faculties of Yale and Princeton but in 1940 he was a seventeen-year-old boy from the mountains of Wyoming who enlisted in the Navy because he was unable to meet a small cash fee connected to his college scholarship. 

Kernan was aboard the carrier Hornet when it carried Doolittle's Raiders to Tokyo,  during tthe Battle of Midway and when it was lost during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942. He served aboard two other aircraft carriers and advanced from ordnance-man to aerial gunner and chief petty officer. His descriptions of the dramatic…


Who am I?

I am Emeritus Professor of History and International Relations at George Washington University. Although I trained at Yale to be a college teacher, I spent most of the first twenty years of my career working in and with the military. I served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam and later as a reservist on active duty during the Grenada –Lebanon Operations in the early 1980s and during the Gulf War.. As a civilian, I worked at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and subsequently as Director of Naval History and of the Naval History and Heritage Command. I  joined George Washington University in 1990. I am the author of six books about military history, two of which, Eagle Against The Sun: The American War With Japan and In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia are directly about the Asia- Pacific War.   


I wrote...

In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia

By Ronald Spector,

Book cover of In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia

What is my book about?

On the day of Japan’s surrender, General Douglas MacArthur declared in a radio address “ today freedom is on the offensive, democracy is on the March.” The question, after Japan’s “Greater East Asia“ crashed in flames was, whose freedom? And, the freedom to do what In the burnt-out ruins of the old empires of the British, the Dutch, the French, and the Japanese?

Everything was up for grabs and new wars soon broke out all through the territories just “liberated” from the Axis. In Indochina and Indonesia Nationalists fought bloody battles against the British Commonwealth forces that had supposedly come to “liberate” them. In China there were two claimants for power,  Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Zedung; in two Korea two as well, Kim Il Sung and Syngmun Rhee. The thousands of Japanese soldiers still in Asia fought for all sides. Indeed, it might appear to some observers that World War II never ended, everybody just switched sides. In the Ruins of Empire was a New York Times Book Review “Editor”s Choice” book.

With Sails Whitening Every Sea

By Brian Rouleau,

Book cover of With Sails Whitening Every Sea: Mariners and the Making of an American Maritime Empire

It’s not possible to understand the United States without understanding its maritime past. Rouleau takes us onto the forecastle to show just how important US mariners were (how could they not be when 100,00 departed the republic each year?) in a vivid account with lots of surprising details drawn from scrimshaw and logbooks. These working-class diplomats shaped the foreign perception of the United States in port cities around the world through their (often violent) encounters with foreign peoples, their onshore carousing, and their spread of black face minstrelsy around the globe.


Who am I?

I am a historian of the United States' global pasts. What excites me most in both research and teaching is approaching familiar topics from unconventional angles whether through unfamiliar objects or comparative perspectives. To do so I have approached the US past from the perspective of its emigrants and the global history of gold rushes, and am doing so now in two projects: one on the ice trade and another on the United States’ imperial relationship with Africa between the Diamond Rush of 1867 and the First World War. I currently teach at the University of Oxford where I am a Fellow in History at St Peter’s College.


I wrote...

Made in Britain: Nation and Emigration in Nineteenth-Century America

By Stephen Tuffnell,

Book cover of Made in Britain: Nation and Emigration in Nineteenth-Century America

What is my book about?

The United States was made in Britain. For over a hundred years following independence, a diverse and lively crowd of emigrant Americans left the United States for Britain. From Liverpool and London, they produced Atlantic capitalism and managed transfers of goods, culture, and capital that were integral to US nation-building. In British social clubs, emigrants forged relationships with elite Britons that were essential not only to tranquil transatlantic connections, but also to fighting southern slavery. As the United States descended into Civil War, emigrant Americans decisively shaped the Atlantic-wide battle for public opinion. 

Blending the histories of foreign relations, capitalism, nation-formation, and transnational connection, Stephen Tuffnell compellingly demonstrates that the United States’ struggle toward independent nationhood was entangled at every step with the world’s most powerful empire of the time. With deep research and vivid detail, Made in Britain uncovers this hidden story and presents a bold new perspective on nineteenth-century trans-Atlantic relations.

The Evil Necessity

By Denver Brunsman,

Book cover of The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World

In total numbers, impressed seamen were second only to enslaved Africans as the largest group of forced laborers in the eighteenth century. In The Evil Necessity, Denver Brunsman describes in vivid detail the experience of impressment for Atlantic seafarers and their families. Forced service robbed approximately 250,000 mariners of their livelihoods, and, not infrequently, their lives, while also devastating Atlantic seaport communities and the loved ones left behind. Press gangs, consisting of a navy officer backed by sailors and occasionally local toughs, often used violence or the threat of violence to supply the manpower necessary to maintain British naval supremacy. But impressment helped to unite Britain and its Atlantic coastal territories in a common system of maritime defense unmatched by any other European empire.


Who am I?

Since the publication of my first book in 1988, my emphasis has always been on history as “story.” That is, the stories of men and women in past centuries with whom we share a common humanity but who faced challenges very different from our own. My goal is to bring their stories to as wide an audience as possible. Whether they describe Newfoundland fisherman in the 17th-century North Atlantic, expatriate Irish men and women in 18th-century Bordeaux, or colonial New Yorkers defying British authority on the eve of the American Revolution, the common theme is the impact of trade and the sea on the lives of ordinary people.


I wrote...

Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York

By Thomas M. Truxes,

Book cover of Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York

What is my book about?

Defying Empire reveals the story of the bold New York City merchants who engaged in forbidden trade with the French enemy during the Seven Years’ War — together with the fate of the lone informer who dared challenge them. Ignoring British prohibitions designed to end North America’s wartime trade with the French, New York’s merchant elite conducted a thriving business in the French West Indies, insisting that their behavior was protected by long practice and British commercial law. But the government in London viewed it as treachery, and its subsequent efforts to discipline North American commerce inflamed the colonists. Through fast-moving events and unforgettable characters, historian Thomas M. Truxes brings eighteenth-century New York and the Atlantic world to life.

Sea of Poppies

By Amitav Ghosh,

Book cover of Sea of Poppies

In his impossible-to-put-down Ibis Trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, Flood of Fire) Amitav Ghosh uses an obscure historical event most of us have barely heard of, the Opium Wars, to explain the rise — and maybe inevitable fall — of global capitalism. Ghosh both exploded and expanded my appreciation of English’s richness with characters speaking in multiple dialects, yet written with such lucidity that I never had to tear myself away from the mesmerizing plot to consult the glossary (itself fascinating). By the end, the Ibis Trilogy’s vast pageantry turned out to be about far more than I realized. Reading it provides one of those aha! moments when you suddenly realize how the world works — and you’ll wish everyone else would read it, too. Everybody thanks me for recommending it.


Who am I?

I’m a nonfiction author whose success owes enormously to fiction. It challenges me to portray real people as vividly as characters in novels, and to use narrative and dialogue to keep readers turning the pages. Reading great novelists has taught me to obsessively seek exactly the right words, to fine-tune the cadence of each sentence, and to heed overall structural rhythm; continually, I return to the fount of fiction for language and inspiration. The astonishing novels I’ve shared here are among the most important books I’ve recently read to help grasp the critical times we’re living in. I’m confident you’ll feel the same.


I wrote...

The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman,

Book cover of The World Without Us

What is my book about?

How would the rest of nature fare if suddenly – never mind why – human beings vanished from Earth’s ecosystem?  How quickly could nature invade our vacated spaces, dismantle our infrastructure and architecture, refill empty niches, and heal the scars we’ve inflicted on this lovely planet? Would endangered species, relieved of our constant daily pressures, suddenly rebound? What about everything we’d leave behind – could nature eventually eliminate all our traces, or are some things we've created so permanent they're indestructible? Which human artifacts would last the longest?

These captivating questions, designed to seduce readers into thinking about the environment while there’s still time to save it and ourselves, made this book’s original edition an international bestseller, now in 35 languages. See for yourself why, in this 15th-anniversary edition with a new afterword.

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