I only bought this one because it was a leather-bound Harvard Classics edition of a book I’d read about more than once, and because it was priced to move at a used book store.
When it cycled to the top of my to-read pile, I was a little afraid that it might be a slog. After all, a sailor’s memoir from 1840 would likely be in slightly archaic English and contain a lot of technical terms.
But I still read it, and Richard Henry Dana Jr’s Two Years Before the Mast can only be described with one word: Wonderful.
We live in an era that attempts to disparage the literary work that has come before. We might be too cool to read that stuff, or we might have strange political beliefs that lead us to deny the enormous value of the great books just because they’re written by white guys (as if that affected the quality somehow). Maybe (as was my case) we’re so caught up with fast-paced modern literature that a dip into the past would slow our roll.
But this one immediately does one of the things that literature is supposed to do: it immediately transports you to another time and place. In this case, the merchant navy of the first half of the 19th Century and a completely alien, deserted, California coast.
It’s one of those tomes which underlines the difference between books that are merely good, perhaps even those that create great emotional responses, and those that are truly great, the books that not only play to the emotions–which this one does–but also engage the intellect. A third quality, unintentional, is that it documents something an age disappeared much faster than anyone around ever thought would happen.
With regards to this last bit, I recommend trying to find an edition which has a section entitled “Twenty-Four Years After”, which, as the name says, was written much later and gives a fascinating rundown on the what happened next for the places, people and ships referenced in the main text. That bit makes it even more wonderful.
As many of you know my preference for beautiful books, it will probably come as no surprise that my recommendation is that you try to get hold of a copy of the Harvard Classics edition (these appear to be going for $10 with free shipping on Ebay as I type, so it might even be cheaper than buying from Amazon.
And the leather, in this case, might even make the experience more genuine.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is the somewhat nautical Ice Station Death. Well, there’s a ship in it which goes near where Dana was nearly two centuries ago. You can check it out here.