Which books are crucial crew?

When we moved from a house to a boat, I had a library of over 3000 books.  Rather too many to put on to one 12m yacht, so some had to go.  Most of them had to go.  Very nearly all of them.

Every long distance yacht has a reasonable stack of books on board.  All those manuals for a start.  (And no, an expensive ipad is not the way to look at your engine manual while the hatches are off and you’re covered in grease.)  Pilot books and charts.  Guide books;  just because you arrived by boat, doesn’t mean you don’t want to explore the castles, gastronomy and markets of your destination. Old log books, to satisfy Customs and your own reminiscing.  Most cruising yachts have these.

For a writer though, there’s a whole extra dimension.  We didn’t keep any land-based storage.  Either it came with us or we sold/dumped/gave it away.  So I took the old notebooks, of course.  Some  writing texts, not least Francine Prose’s wonderful Reading like a Writer. References for the WIP.  On Roaring Girl this explains books on Maori art, the ships of the Middle Kingdom and Cormac Cullinan’s Wild Law.  These are as important to me as my partner’s reference books on silverwork are to her.  And many of them are not available in any e-format.

The revelation comes when you get to the stuff that isn’t about the crafts of sailing, jewellery or writing.  When we moved aboard there was no such thing as an e.book. So, as I broke up a lifetime’s collection, I planned which books I would want to read on the long passages.  Which books represented ‘home’ for me, such that I could not imagine our boat without them aboard?   I had space for maybe 100 books on top of the 150 or so in the ‘practical categories’.

For a long-time feminist and radical, a spec fic reader and history enthusiast, I ended up with a surprising number of DWEM.  That’s dead, white, European men.  Eliot,  Thomas, Proust, Carroll, Tolstoy, Chaucer and Shakespeare are necessary furniture in my life.  There are many others who don’t fit that category:  Audre Lorde, Ursula Le Guin, Jan Morris, so it wasn’t all that bad, but the small pile of books that I couldn’t bear to live without taught me a lot about my own roots.   Of course in the intervening seven years, I’ve put some aside and even acquired new ones.  And somehow, I’ve kept the book cargo to two (large) lockers, and the weight reasonably well distributed.

Try it for yourself.  Put all thoughts of a kindle to one side for a moment and run your own thought experiment.  You can have up to 100 books, but all the others are being scattered.  This is your spiritual, intellectual and literary diet for long periods at sea.  Maybe Shakespeare and the Bible will be enough for you, but if not, which ones do you not just want, but believe that you will need?  And what has that revealed about you, as a reader and as a writer?



About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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