“We are a puny and fickle folk…”

“Avaritia” from the Seven Deadly Sins series by Pieter van der Heyden (1558)

Continuing the title quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Method of Nature,” originally in a speech to the Society of the Delphi at Waterville College, Maine, 11 August 1841:

Avarice, hesitation, and following are our diseases. The rapid wealth which hundreds in the community acquire in trade, or by the incessant expansions of our population and arts, enchants the eyes of all the rest; the luck of one is the hope of thousands, and the bribe acts like the neighborhood of a gold mine to impoverish the farm, the school, the church, the house, and the very body and feature of man.

It came to mind today as I wrote to a bookseller from whom I had ordered, last Monday, the one book by Ricky Jay that I don’t own. After I got the “shipped” email from Amazon, the third-party seller cancelled and refunded my order, claiming this: “We were in the process of packing and shipping out your order from the warehouse when we discovered significant damage.”

You would be wrong if you thought I believed that. You would be right if you think I’d be hopping mad if I then actually caught them in the lie. Just now, I did…and I am. I composed and sent this message to them only after counting to ten (see the clip below):

People are so predictable. Once you discovered Ricky Jay had died, you refunded my $54 order for this book, claiming you found the “Good” book was not even in acceptable condition when you went to ship it. I have to tell you that I didn’t believe a word of it. Now, a week later – exactly as I expected – you’ve re-listed the Good condition book at more than three times* your original price.

Did you really think, in these days filled with avarice, that I would accept your inexpert explanation and forget about it? That I wouldn’t think to check for you re-listing it on Amazon? That I wouldn’t also see it re-list in places like Abebooks? I mean, I am looking to buy the book, right? Frankly, your optimism surprises me.

Ricky Jay, for forty years one of my few heroes and a serious book collector himself, probably would have summarized this behavior with one word: despicable.

I can’t blame you too much for yielding to the temptation to cash in on Jay’s death as so many others are trying to do. I am, however, disappointed that you ended up fitting so precisely into the mold I imagined you would. My cynicism level remains unchanged.

*After I sent this, they of course sent no reply but did increase the price to four times their original, so no conscience at all. Wouldn’t it be amusing and immensely satisfying if they’ve priced themselves right out of the market?

“She was a bloody airplane what couldn’t quite take off.”


Farley Mowat’s The Serpent’s Coil remains, for me, the crème de la crème of sea tales, of which I’ve read a fair number. It’s the story of the Foundation Maritime company’s oceangoing rescue tug Josephine and its search for the crippled Liberty ship Leicester, bound from London to New York but abandoned by its crew mid-Atlantic after an unintended encounter with a hurricane shifted its ballast irretrievably, and therefore open to salvage claim. This was a search without benefit of many of the things you might be thinking of because it was 1948. After they found it, they began to tow it to Bermuda. Awaiting them were two more hurricanes and not even a glimmer from a weather satellite, the first of which was still twelve years hence.


To comparatively illustrate how good this book is, I can say that I’ve read it at least ten times, and that count will increase by one this holiday weekend. The Perfect Storm? Once. Junger’s was a decent enough book standing by itself, I suppose, but when compared to Mowat’s book, which I’d read years previously, I found it landlubber rubbish. In fact, I recall thinking this to myself several times as I read it: “Pfffft.”

From The Serpent’s Coil:

         Salvage men seldom use superlatives when they discuss a storm at sea — if indeed they can be persuaded to discuss it at all — but many of those aboard the Josephine have lasting memories of this night. One crewman came close to waxing lyrical about it — in a grim sort of way.
“She wasn’t no boat at all by then — she was a bloody airplane what couldn’t quite take off. I never seen nothing like it in twenty-seven years at sea. I got into Sparkie’s cabin and he was going crazy chasing his trunk around the room. Every now and then they’d change sides and the trunk would chase him for a bit. I got up on his bunk, jammed my feet against the deck, and braced my elbows between the bunkboard and the bulkhead. In between laughing my fool head off at Sparkie, I began to feel a wee bit peaked-like. Not scared so much as just plain cowardly. My God, she rolled! And pitched! When she come down off a crest she must have been putting her bows right under. I didn’t go on deck to see. I didn’t like it where I was, but I knew I wouldn’t like it any better up on top.” This was a rare outburst from a seaman of the salvage tugs.

Mowat’s preceding volume, The Grey Seas Under, a two-decade history of the Foundation Franklin salvage tug, is equally gripping and recounts its many hair-raising operations from 1930 to 1948. On the first edition’s back cover, he wrote:

I have gone out to sea on salvage jobs and when I was not paralyzed with fright I marveled anew at the men and ships who could do the impossible with such monotonous regularity and with such a diffidence of manner. I talked, and listened — mainly listened — to a score of seamen whose stories spanned half a century. It was, I think, the most fascinating and solidly satisfying experience of my not unadventurous life to become a part of the life of the salvage ships. But it has spoiled me forever when it comes to enjoying tales of derring-do at sea. For me the epics of naval warfare, of great lines, of tankers, and all the rest, now read like nursery tales beside the stories that I have heard about the somber, insignificant little ships that cheat the Western Sea.

I first read The Serpent’s Coil in front of a wood stove and looking out on a howling winter’s night on Cape Cod. It’s still summer-hot here now, but I fully expect to get chills this weekend.

I’m secretly pleased that these two volumes are not available as ebooks. Kindle’s nice, but I like the feel of a real book when it comes to old favourite page-turners.