October 27, 1998
ROGER ROSENBLATT: It may simply be a coincidence, but there's something striking about the near simultaneous successes of two non-fiction books in the past year or so. One book, "Into thin Air," is John Crackour's account of a disastrous climb of Mt. Everest in 1996. The other, "The Perfect Storm," is Sebastian Younger's account of a disastrous fishing voyage in 1991off the Coast of Massachusetts. That both these calamities really occurred takes them out of the realm and the realm of appeal of the so-called "disaster movies" of the 1970's, such as "Earthquake" and the "Towering Inferno," or more recent examples of the genre like "Twister." These disasters - composed of gale-force winds and ice, occurred at the extremes of real life. The mountain one can see from one's window; the ocean down the road.
To understand the successes of these two books requires a decision on what the books are about: danger, death, striving, human courage, the capricious and murderous elements, or all or none of the above. Then there's the added question of why now? Do these tales of mis-adventure provide something that is deemed missing from the world, an enemy perhaps, the oldest enemy - nature? For as long as one can remember Public Enemy No. 1 was nuclear war, and it was oddly comforting to know that it was there, waiting. The big bad bomb took other menaces out of the picture.
Now, though that menace is not really gone, it seems to be. The old Soviet Union no longer bangs its shoes on the table and is broke besides. In the mountain and the sea we may be rediscovering tried and true enemies of the past. Nuclear winter is replaced by real winter - maybe. Then too both books are stories of human striving, where everything achieved is difficult and won at great cost. No question that life has gotten a bit soft and convenient lately and plush and fat, especially for Americans. Nearly everyone is working. More people than ever can buy their own homes. Every time Alan Greenspan appears on television millions of mortgage holders redo their loans. Shoppers order out. All the luxuries of life can be easily delivered to one's door: pizza, flowers, mattresses. Get Direct TV and watch a billion channels. Shop by catalogue, bank by computer. Millennium time and the living is easy. And it could be that people do not want it to be quite as easy as it is. And so they order "The Perfect Storm" and "Into Thin Air." Of course, they order it on the Internet. These books relate terrible events, but they do it very well, and it may be that they're popular simply because they are tales well told.
But I can't help thinking that, apart from qualities of difficulty and danger, that they appeal to the public's desire for significance. They tell of circumstances of life and death, things that matter. The commercial fishermen were not forced to head out to their perfect storm, but once they were in the thick of it, everything was important. The climbers of Everest wanted to do it because Everest was, as ever, there. But once on the mountain they were no mere hobbyists. Life counted. Actions had consequences. Some would hold that people take to such stories to escape from the real world, but, in fact, they may be moving toward a world more real - only interior. Through the pages of books they escape to the reality of a violent sea and an implacable mountain and are drawn into moments of deadly seriousness. We find that we belong in situations where we have never been before. These books become required reading. A strange feeling occurs when one puts them down and then meanders back into the relatively serene and harmless life of ordinary existence. Where is the avalanche in that? Where is the crushing wave? Sometimes one grabs a book to find the place where one truly lives, the hard, important, testing life of dreams. I'm Roger Rosenblatt.