9 Books Celebrating the Wonders of the Sea

Off the Shelf asked Tamar Adler, chef and author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, to provide us with a list of her favorite books. She chose to share her most beloved titles about the sea, and her wonderfully varied list is rich with classics you know and some you might not; a new soon-to-be-classic; a novel in verse; a field guide for shell hunters; biographies of clams and crabs;  and advice for finding, catching and cooking your own seaside feast. If you can’t take a trip down to the shore, these books make wonderful armchair vacations. As for us, we’re now dreaming of freshly steamed crabs eaten from a newspaper-covered picnic table, with the salt air breezing around us. Ah, the sea!

1The Odyssey
by Homer

It's hard to know how anyone brought themselves to attempt to write about the sea after The Odyssey, so much of which is spent amid tempestuous waves, with sails being raised, and torn, masts broken by Zeus's thunderbolts, ships wrecked, our hero stranded on strange islands. Incidentally, the descriptions of food in the book are lovely.

2The Edge of the Sea
by Rachel Carson

I find it strange that Rachel Carson is best known for Silent Spring. "To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be," she writes in this book, which is the third of her sea books. She was a marine being.

3The Summer Book
by Tove Jansson

This book is all of childhood, all of ocean-shore living, all of a kind of deep, straight, harsh weather - all in twenty-two little stories.

4Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay
by William W. Warner

Did you know that the crab's taxonomical name is Callinectes sapidus, which means "the beautiful swimmer?" I didn't either, and it's what kept me reading 300 pages on Chesapeake Bay crabs.

5Clams: How to Find, Catch and Cook Them
by Curtis J. Badger

This straightforward book does its title proud. It begins truthfully: "To catch a clam, you must find it," and takes us all the way through chowder. It is gratifying.

6Shells of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and the West Indies
by Percy A. Morris

Everything about this book is beautiful. Its cloth orange cover is beautiful. Its pages are smooth. Its illustrations of paper shells, rock dwellers, piddocks, wentletraps, olive shells, and limpets, among over a hundred others are simple photographs, each wondrous thing in a straight, no nonsense grid. It's really the Glossary of Descriptive Terms at the back of the book that gives me shivers, though. It is the section to which I open up most often. "Acuminate - sharply pointed. Auriform - shaped like the human ear. Body-whorl - the last whorl of a snail shell. Carinate - with a keel-like, elevated ridge. Cuspidate - prickly pointed." Dextral, Discoidal, Orbicular, Sinistral . . . on and on it goes. (Refers to first edition cover.)

7All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

I have lent my copy away, so I can't quote his descriptions of sea snails and whelks, shells held in the hands of a scared, blind girl. But I can smell the cold, green moss on the rock walls of a secret sea water river she finds, and I can't and don't want to shake it.

8Autobiography of Red
by Anne Carson

How could Anne Carson, enamored of volcanos, a classicist who translates Euripides and Sappho, be an author of the sea? It is her writing itself that is sea-like. She writes words that have roaring meaning and harsh edges, words that are like sea-glass, rubbed from a place between human and natural, words that are steep, like cliffs, which edge out into the unknown, at once confident and wary - words that go ahead, afraid. Those are sea words. "What is an adjective?" she writes, in the first pages of Autobiography of Red. "Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning 'placed on top,'" added, "appended," "imported," "foreign." Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being." There it is, the sea, the shore, the endless white sky above it.

9Fish & Shellfish: The Cook’s Indispensable Companion
by James Peterson

If you should want to cook sea-things, this book will tell and show you how.