An Ocean of Books


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

In the summer, a young man’s fancy turns to beaches, boards, and bikinis. There’s nothing that can take the place of a day hanging ten or shooting the curl on some monster waves as you wave to the wahinis on the sand. I spent most of my summers on Singer Island Beach, just north of West Palm Beach, Florida, soaking up the sun, riding the waves, shooting the breeze with the surfer girls, and dancing the shag to The Tams or The Embers. Those were my salad days—and my salads included freshly plucked coconut, orange, and mango.  

In my youth, I loved the beach so much that I thought about making a career of marine biology or oceanography. I went to college in West Palm Beach in order to be near the ocean (I lived only a mile away from it in college and spent almost every afternoon there) and to pursue that dream. I reveled in my biology and chemistry courses my first year, but in my sophomore year I met the carbons and compounds of organic chemistry that took my breath away. Breathless, but not from excitement, I slowly recognized that my inability to name compounds was the gate that kept me off the beach of a career devoted to naming and exploring the denizens of the sea and seashore.

I never thought I’d be living far from the beach or an ocean, but since 1977, I’ve been landlocked in cities from Atlanta (which is only about a five-hour drive from the Carolina shore, thank goodness), Columbus, Ohio, Lancaster, Pennsylvania (about three hours from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware), and Chicago (even though Chicagoans call the sandy spits along the shore of Lake Michigan “the beach,” they’re deluding themselves). The last time I was at the ocean for any length of time was almost ten years ago between houses. I spent about two weeks at Litchfield Beach, South Carolina (twenty miles south of its more famous neighbor, Myrtle Beach) and got in all the body surfing (I had to give up my board as I gave up my youth) I could muster. Fortunately, there was a hurricane moving in, so for a few days the waves were bodacious. Over the next decade I got to the beach for a day here or there, but never for any extended period of time.

These days, my thoughts return to the beach every summer, and I recall a different lifetime of fun, sun, and sand. One way I can live at the beach all summer—even year round—is to pull out several books that transport me to a place and time are deeply woven into my identity. So, apart from re-reading the two most perfect novels of all time (more about this in a future column)—Madame Bovary and Middlemarch—I’ll be spending some time in the next few months (maybe at the “beach” near my house on Lake Michigan) dipping my toes and fingers into the bracing depths of these books.

Jacques-Yves Costeau, The Living Sea (Harper & Row, 1963). Most folks of a certain age know Costeau as the wiry man who introduced them to the mysteries of the deep in his bathysphere. This classic of oceanography chronicles Costeau’s voyage around the oceans in his ship, the Calypso, and is full of splendid photographs that bring to life his narrative.

Craig Phillips, The Captive Sea (Chilton Books, 1964). On our annual drive down to West Palm Beach from Charleston, South Carolina, we would often stop to visit Marineland, an aquarium in Daytona Beach, Florida. This was long before the atrocious ecological disaster named Disney World was a twinkle in anyone’s eyes and before there was a tourist attraction called Sea World. Marineland, as did the Miami Seaquarium, existed not solely as tourist attractions (though they of course played that role) but as zoos of the sea where sea animals could be studied by scientists and understood by visitors. Phillips’s book is a marvelous introduction, by someone who worked at one of them, to the modern oceanarium that was the forerunner to the huge aquariums that exist today.

Richard Ellis, Deep Atlantic: Life, Death, and Exploration in the Abyss (Knopf, 1996). Much as we now know about the waters just off the shore, we know very little still about the depths of the ocean. Ellis’s lusciously illustrated book is not just an exploration of the deep, but also the first-ever examination of the joys and the failures of the exploration of the deep sea. In many ways, Ellis takes up Costeau’s mantle.

Geoffrey Walker, ed. Sea Life: A Complete Guide to the Marine Environment (Smithsonian, 1996). This book contains everything you always wanted to know about estuaries, shore environments, marine invertebrates, seabirds. No marine enthusiast should be without this book. It contains 56 color plates, 1,000 black and white illustrations, and 75 maps that add to the value of its already rich reference materials. I consult this book year round simply to learn more about various species in which I am interested.

John Alexander and James Lazell, Ribbon of Sand: The Amazing Convergence of the Ocean and the Outer Banks (UNC, 2000; Algonquin, 1992). A rich and fascinating exploration of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and the changes that islands have undergone since the development of the Outer Banks over the past thirty years. Anyone who’s spent any time on the Outer Banks will appreciate this little book.

Jennifer Ackerman, Notes From the Shore (Penguin, 1995). Annie Dillard goes to the beach in Ackerman’s richly evocative portrait of the marine flora and fauna of Cape Henlopen, Delaware. She takes on a wondrous journey through her explorations of horseshoe crabs, ospreys, and the movement of sand and water.

Orrin H. Pilkey, et. al. Living with the South Carolina Coast (Duke, 1996). This particular book is one of a series of books published by Duke called “Living with the Shore.” The books in the series attempt to educate those living along the shore from the Carolinas to California about the inherent risks of living on the beach. This particular book, published after the devastation to the Carolina coast of Hurricane Hugo, uses geological surveys and other materials to help homeowners and developers develop strategies for living on the always shifting sands of the Carolina coast.

Wallace Kaufman and Orrin H. Pilkey, Jr., The Beaches are Moving: The Drowning of America’s Shoreline (Duke, 1995). Although it is a bit dated by now, this stunning book offers a detailed picture of the many reasons that our shorelines continue to erode and the follies in which individuals engage in order to “save” their shore. Thus, pumping sand onto a beach in hopes of restoring the beach actually erodes the beach faster because of the change such work introduces into patterns of the sea currents. This book is as important in its ways as Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind.

While there are no pictures of surfer girls in bikinis in the pages of these books or waves I can surf, they continue to take me to a place of beauty and wonder, the ocean.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry Carrigan. 

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