While still in Point, some of my friends and I came up with the term "crack book" to describe a book that was literally too good to put down. You know--the book that is so good, you go to bed an hour early just so you can lie there reading it? The first crack book was Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and since then, few others have entered the hallowed pantheon. Crack, of course, it the illegal but highly addictive substance, which, when applied to literature, suggests a certain metaphor. For example: if Snow Crash is addicting like crack, then perhaps other books are other edible substances. Romance novels are cookie books--so bad for you, but hard to resist and easy to consume in large quantities. Gone With the Wind could be like foi gras--delicious, but think too long about where it came from and you start getting uncomfortable. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, on the other hand, is like a seven-course banquet with all your favourite foods, one that you could eat over and over (and over) again. I'm using my favourite books as examples, but I'm sure you could come up with some of your own.
I was musing on this, because I had a conversation the other night with a friend where I described Patrick O'Brian's books as "--crack books, but, pure, unadulterated crack, like--crack but better than crack" and she helpfully suggested "ah, no black tar heroin for you, this is pure china white," causing me to shout "yes!" (Only after we hung up did I start to wonder how she knew the difference between black tar heroin and china white, but never mind)
Patrick O'Brian is the author behind the eighteen Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin novels. They are set aboard the British navy during the time of Napoleon and they are so wonderful, so evocative, so funny and heart-wrenching that I have been forced to ration myself, or else you, dear readers, would find me in my apartment, Trainspotting-like, jabbering on about spars, Sophies and Boccherini. As soon as I finished HMS Surprise on the train back to Williamsburg, I immediately broke out into a sweat, jonesing for my next fix. Then again, that could have been the cold. Nevertheless! These books are Pure. Bliss. In. Novel. Format. Page after page of delectable naval jargon, broken up only by a description of Stephen Maturin diving naked into the Indian Ocean or Jack Aubrey queuing his hair. I wish that I could rub the pages on my eyeballs and absorb them directly into my bloodstream.
Like I said: china white.
I am rationing partly because Mr. O'Brian is sadly no longer of this world and so there are a finite number of Aubrey/Maturin novels, and there is nothing like encountering a good read for the first time. I've been holding my rapaciousness at bay by reading other Napoleonic navy books. Apparently, this is a giant sub-genre I was completely unaware of. And so far I have yet to encounter anything that satisfies as well as Mr. O'Brian's books, but, like the sport of sailing itself, there is no such thing as a bad work of naval fiction. CS Forrester's Horatio Hornblower series goes quickly, very rigidly, very by the book, no pun intended. Dudley Pope's Nicholas Ramage series, on the other hand, is not as well written, but the story lines are certainly evocative. According to these authors, there were no actual people involved in the major naval battles, just lots and lots of fictional characters. I just picked up Mr. Pope's first book and was thrilled--nay, ecstatic to see lists and lists of other Napoleonic naval titles on the inside front cover, waiting for me to snort them up my nostrils.
So, if anyone is wondering what to get me for an apartment-warming present in July, the answer is: book store gift certificates.
Or the number of a really good twelve-step program. Either way.