9780141001821 / 0141001828

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex


Publisher:Penguin Books



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About the book:

The appeal of Dava Sobel's Longitude was that it illuminated a little-known piece of history through a series of captivating incidents and engaging personalities. Nathaniel Philbrick's In The Heart of the Sea certainly covers the same area, by examining the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry through the arc of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a boisterous sperm whale. The story which inspired Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick, has a lot going for it--derring-do, cannibalism, rescue--and Philbrick proves an amiable and well-informed narrator, providing both context and detail. We learn about the importance and mechanics of blubber production--a vital source of oil--and we get the nuts and bolts of harpooning and life onboard whalers. Neither are we spared the nitty gritty of the open boats and sucking human bones dry.

By sticking to the tried and tested Longitude formula, Philbrick has missed a slight trick or two. The epicentre of the whaling industry was Nantucket, a small island off Cape Cod; most of the whales were in the Pacific, a huge journey around the southernmost tip of America. We never learn the reason for this distance and why no one ever tried to create an alternative whaling capital somewhere nearer. Similarly, Philbrick tells us that the story of the Essex was well known to Americans for decades but he never explores how such legends fade from our consciousness. Philbrick would no doubt reply that such questions were beyond his remit and you can't exactly accuse him of skimping on his research; 50 pages of footnotes is impressive by any standards and to give him his credit he wears his learning light. Unlike many academics, he doesn't get bogged down in turgid detail and the narrative rattles along at a nice pace. And when the story line is as good as this, you can't really ask for more.--John Crace

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