"There is not a moment to be lost."
So says Jack Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise, to Dr. Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon, spy and polymath, uncounted times in the great books by the late British novelist Patrick O'Brian. Like the firing of a cannon, Aubrey's words invariably signal a twist in the long saga of the Napoleonic wars, when the two men and a constellation of shipmates sailed the seas to preserve what was right in the world, or at least in the interest of Great Britain.
Alas, for me, those urgent moments have all but slipped away, lost in my own ocean of time. After a decade of following their adventures, I am at the end. Twenty books. Some 6,500 pages. My thirties.
With only a few dozen pages left, I honestly don't know what to think. Am I to be proud of having navigated so prodigious a story? Or saddened that so significant a stretch of my life already has been lived?
I started reading the O'Brian books about the time I had my first child, not long after I was married. I have carried them on journeys abroad, used them as balm during rough times and savored them many mornings at dawn, losing myself in the erudition and wit before getting on with practical matters. It was only through a certain restraint -- and the fear of finishing -- that I managed to make them last this long.
Many others have paid homage to O'Brian's vivid plots, dry humor and lush, ironic language. But for me the books also are about the power of reading, not just the seductiveness of storytelling. I think of them now as a grand work of literary companionship, a savvy guide that nudged me to look in all sorts of unlikely directions. Over and over, the novels seemed to chide me gently for my timidity, my lack of civility and my inability to sometimes look more closely at the meaning of things.
After reading repeatedly about Aubrey and Maturin's musical duets (the captain plays a tolerable violin and the surgeon a cello), how could I resist learning more about the pieces? Dozens of records by Locatelli, Corelli and Handel now sit on my shelves alongside those of Charlie Parker, Doc Watson and the Rolling Stones.
I'm more attentive to the wild world now, though compared with Maturin, one of the world's great naturalists, I'm a piker. As I worked my way through the first few books, I got a fly rod. Inept as I still am at the angler's art, I can't get enough of cold water, small streams and brook trout. Maturin and his Royal Society friends would understand.
It's the same with other detail-oriented activities, such as hawk watching or even work-related tasks, like looking through Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Those kinds of activities can be exacting, frustrating, even incomprehensible. (Try sorting a buteo hawk from an accipiter at a distance, or seeking truth in a 10K.) There was a time not too long ago when I would not have bothered. Reading about Aubrey's zeal for celestial navigation and Maturin's obsession with biology and spycraft helped spur me to at least try. I've found that effort applied over time to the tough and arcane sometimes pays off nicely.
Yes, Dad, you were right after all.
Please note that the instructive benefits of the books go only so far. I still don't have a clue what much of the nautical jargon means, and I don't much care. I also long ago decided not to follow the lead of O'Brian's fictive galleys. Though I own the cookbook that bills itself as a "gastronomical companion" to the novels -- its title, "Lobscouse and Spotted Dog," hints at the novels' culinary inclinations -- I never could whip up enthusiasm for Fu-Fu or the other dishes that figure in the books.
At the same time, in the spirit of Aubrey's collegial dinners, I drink and offer wine far more freely now. And I may be better at occasionally maintaining a conversation within certain civilized bounds. Aubrey and his friends knew the rules of society and, for the most part, followed them well.
I've also discovered that I care much less now about what people think about my reading, and my interests in general. I know the O'Brian books strike some as (and I put this as gently as possible) silly, prepubescent, male. My wife all but rolls her eyes when I insist on reading yet another "hilarious" passage aloud. My friend John, a wide-ranging reader, is cool to my periodic appeals that he work through the stories. Having tried "Master and Commander," the first book of the series, he smiles tolerantly at my devotion but steadfastly refuses to move on to the others.
What does it matter? I'm the one who gets to relish the prose.
More readers understand this now, of course, as the legions of the dedicated continue to grow. With a movie scheduled for release in June, starring Russell Crowe as Aubrey and directed by Peter Weir, O'Brian will undoubtedly have throngs of new admirers.
I'll see the movie along with them, of course, but my expectations remain modest. Over the years, I have come to appreciate that the long, slow approach to fiction sometimes works best and that quiet moments in the morning, alone with my book and black coffee, can be as exhilarating as any film.
That may be the greatest revelation of all: It's worth prying myself from bed to squeeze in time to read. It's a habit now. Each volume drew me in with a mix of ebullience, sorrow, satisfaction, joy and shame, all of it leavened with the wry humor that can only spring from characters who have learned to coexist in close quarters, over vast, often trying distances.
Say what you will about the flaws in Aubrey, Maturin and the many, many others who populate O'Brian's books: Aubrey's philandering and inability to keep his balance anywhere but at the helm of his ships; Maturin's temper and predilection for laudanum and coca leaves; the propensity of so many of the characters to slash and burn and wreak havoc, to fritter away their money and forget the future.
Say what you will, they live and breathe in O'Brian's novels, and they have helped me to live and breathe a little better in my own time.
"There is not a moment to be lost," indeed.