Commander (Or Reading Books on History)

Ever since I read a book about the Trojan War as a child, I enjoyed reading about history. Preferably novels.

Nevertheless, over the years I have sufficiently matured to the point of reading – voluntarily, that is – non-fiction, and some of it was very good. Like Herodotus. Or the Conquest of New Spain. Or when it comes to it, Pepys, although I wouldn’t recommend him to the casual reader, unless much distilled. Let Pepys bury the Parmesan or flee from his wife’s red hot poker in a single volume rather than in the eleven that I’ve got on the shelf.


Reading the entire Pepys took me some four years and it was my finest feat of endurance to date. (And it only happened because my family kept buying the volumes as birthday presents since I kept reading them.) The trouble with Pepys is that he never meant us to read his diary and consequently he talked about people and things without bothering to explain who or what they were; after all he hardly needed to explain this to himself.

But I was saying… For the past half year, I have been diligently working my way through The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia. This is a book that I specifically asked for. It was on my wish list for ages. And I was very pleased to get it.

I’m greatly interested in the history of the Mediterranean and its people. The Phoenicians and the Greeks, the Romans… the Spanish, the Knights of Malta, the Republic of Venice… whatever. I love the Mediterranean. I love its landscapes; I love its languages. So when I say that I am working my way through this book, this is exactly what I mean. Work. With the best will in the world, I think, David Abulafia managed to write a very boring book about something very interesting.

I only mention this because yesterday I started to read another book of history: Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain by Stephen Taylor, the biography of Sir Edward Pellew, a frigate captain in the Royal Navy in the time of Admiral Nelson. Now I’m not, in general, fond of biographies, even nowadays. I did read a few but the “from cradle to grave” type of books generally bore me. Well, not this one. I was turning the pages as if it was one of C. S. Forester’s novels about Captain Hornblower. If you like the naval yarns of C. S. Forester, Patrick O´Brian or Alexander Kent, don’t miss this book.

And if you’ve never heard of Forester, et al.: As far as I’m concerned, you can’t praise a non-fiction book more than by saying it reads like a novel. (Showing my lack of sophistication here.) So go on, read it. You’ll learn some history and you can read Forester, et al. afterwards.

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