Dean King's A SEA OF WORDS
Dean King, with John B. Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes, authored this third edition subtitled “A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian.”
This is a perfect example of a good “grazing book.” You can dip into it at any time and find something interesting. I got a copy since I’ve been reading O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels (some reviews are here and here) and had found myself puzzled by some of the more obscure terms representing the life and times of early 19th Century British seafaring.
The front of the book includes a series of very informative chapters. First is a description of the structure and operation of the Royal Navy of the time, by John B. Hattendorf. Sections are devoted to “King, Cabinet, and Parliament,” “The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty,” “The Admiralty Office.” Other sections qualitatively and quantitatively describe the naval world O’Brian’s hero Aubrey finds himself in. The main impression I took from this section was of the amazing size and complexity of the Royal Navy and the fact it was managed without computers or telecommunications. Just as useful are overviews of politics and wars of the time.
The next major section is “Stephen Maturin and Naval Medicine in the Age of Sail,” by J. Worth Estes. Reading this is a sobering reminder of how primitive medical treatment and surgery were at this time.
Then we have a series of illustrations. Most useful I found were the numerous drawing of different types of sailing ships. These are useful to keep handy while reading the O’Brian novels if only because they give an indication of the size and complexity of the different vessels of the time.
Finally we get to the meat of the book, an alphabetically arranged list of words and definitions. All topics are represented — parts of the ship, historical events, geography, natural history (lots of birds and bugs, as readers will appreciate given Dr. Maturin’s natural curiosity), famous personalities, etc. etc. Just the thing to dip into when you’re looking for an interesting reading experience!
The book concludes with a timeline titled “A Time Line of the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, and the Fight for Independence in Chile,” followed by a selected bibliography.
In summary, this is an eminently readable reference book that stands by itself at the same time it illuminates the novels it tracks. Highly recommended.