“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.”
While few of us set out to sea “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November” in our souls, most of us, at one time or another, identify with these sentiments of Ishmael, Herman Melville’s narrator in “Moby Dick.” We waken one morning, and an interior fog befouls the sunny day outside the bedroom window. The coffee lacks its usual zing, and our energetic colleagues at work seem as dull as dishwater. We slog through the hours as if up to our waists in a miasmatic swamp, and return home wanting nothing more than an extra glass of wine and the oblivion of sleep.
Often that sleep does the trick, and we kick off the sheets in the morning eager to embrace the world. Sometimes, though, Morpheus fails to work his magic: the coffee remains flat, the jokes at work stale, the day a haze of obligation and setbacks. We plod along not in some state of terrible depression, which Winston Churchill called his “black dog,” but for whatever reason, frequently indiscernible, we feel lower than a worm, the lilt in our step reduced to a limp, the gleam in our eye dead as Scrooge’s doornail.
When these moods strike, some of us patiently wait for restoration. Some reach out to friends or family to lift their sails and escape the doldrums, some unwisely take to the bottle, some increase their time on the treadmill or the elliptical, some sink into a sofa with a beer and a bag of chips and attempt their escape by watching a movie or a football game.
And some of us open a book.
Several times this past month, sometimes from exhaustion, sometimes for reasons hidden from me, like Ishmael, I found myself “growing grim about the mouth.” Sleep and a slower pace helped cure my fatigue and restore the balance in my mood, but on some days I needed stronger medicine, some way to vacation, to escape the grind of my daily routine.
As in the past, reading relieved this pressure and reduced the stress.
In “Captain Blood,” Rafael Sabatini whisked me off to late 17th century Barbados, where Peter Blood, a physician and former soldier of fortune, finds himself a slave, falsely accused of treason against England’s King James II. Leading a band of fellow slaves, Blood manages to seize a Spanish ship come to raid the colony, and so takes on the mantle of daring buccaneer. Here are adventures galore, fully developed characters, fine writing, romance, and a study in courage, grit, honor, and wisdom. “Captain Blood” is a treasure chest of a novel, offering readers, particularly young men, a wealth of excitement coupled with lessons in the classic virtues.
In my public library, “Blotto, Twinks and The Intimate Review” snagged my attention both because of the outlandish title and the lovely cover depicting a 1920s couple watching a revue, a light theatrical entertainment. The much-honored British author, Simon Britt, breaks nearly every rule of fiction in this story of a kidnapping, unorthodox marriages, coincidences, and a bizarre plot to bring down English aristocrats. An affable son of that aristocracy, Blotto is missing more than a few marbles upstairs, but his sister Twinks more than makes up for his empty attic. Never—and I think I can literally say never—have I read such a daft story. Just when you think Britt can pile up no more absurdities, he adds another unlikely character or situation to his teetering mound of the preposterous.
I have written that Mr. Britt breaks nearly every rule of fiction, but two abide: he enchants with his language, and he makes his readers laugh. On a single page, representative of many, he writes that revue star Frou-Frou Gavotte is “an absolute eyewobbler” and “as English as a ham sandwich with mustard,” though with a “spoffing odd name.” Blotto makes a mistake and declares himself as “shinnying up the wrong drainpipe.” His friend Whiffler’s desire to marry Frou-Frou “could, by Blotto’s reckoning, cause an eruption comparable to that of Krakatoa.” Though Blotto is a “fluent fat-chewer, Whiffler’s announcement had momentarily robbed him of the power of speech.”
Such linguistic gusto helped release my prison-pent self. (It was also refreshing to read a “G-rated” novel.)
A last example of the saving power of the printed word: Years ago, I read William Manchester’s “The Last Lion: Visions of Glory,” the first book of three about Winston Churchill. (I read the others as they were published.) I hadn’t opened the book for several years, but after an exchange of emails about Churchill with an acquaintance who is an editor, I revisited the opening chapters of “The Last Lion” and remembered why both Manchester’s biography and Winston Churchill had the power to rouse my spirits. In these pages, Manchester breathes life into Churchill, giving us the man who found such zest in living while on occasion descending into despondency.
Books possess a magic all their own. They cast a powerful spell providing respite and escape when we feel imprisoned by circumstances, trials, or inexplicable dark moods. They take us away from that most monstrous jailor, the self, and free us from our prison of melancholy.
Ismael had the sea as his “substitute for pistol and ball.”
Some of us have books.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.