20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

It came as a surprise to me, when I first opened the page, that the copy of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' I have owned since 1984 was yet unread. I approached this as a reread but I realized that I've never read it before. It must be the movies and cartoons about this popular tale that convinced me I've read it.

Having just finished my first reading, the book proves itself superior to any movie or cartoon rendition. For one thing, its longer with many scenes that a director could not possibly fit into a film. Jules Verne manages to pack in so much adventure in just three hundred pages.

At core, this is a sci-fi book. One of the earliest; written in the middle of the nineteenth century. I have read one other Verne book and that is 'The Journey to the Center of the Earth'. What this book shares with that one is the love of science and learning. Reading this book I can't help but think how we have become both jaded to the wonders of science and chained to the rituals of specialization. 'League' harkens back to another day, an earlier age, when science was younger and thrilling. Verne manages to convey a love of science and its disciplines as well as its power. And it is a refreshing feeling and reminder not to take things for granted.

This is also a book about nature. ocean life in particular. The protagonist is one Pierre Arronax, an ichthyologist, therefore the reader is treated to detailed scientific classification of ocean life except for one lone chapter when a tropical rainforest is explored. Nature and its wonders is shown side by side with man's impressive mind. This book makes me proud of being homo sapiens at the same time it makes me keenly aware of my mathematical and scientific deficiencies.

I do have one startling observation. And it is an observation, not a critique, since this was more than a hundred years ago and the sensibilities of that time is different from our own. Namely, this book is not eco-friendly. Greenpeace and the world wildlife fund will go crazy at this book. There is one incident when Captain Nemo labels sperm whales as useless and proceeds to massacre them via the Nautilus. Yup, that was crazy. Countless times various creatures are encountered and hunts are conducted with impunity. This was man's attitude during the days before we all realized that we are depleting resources beyond acceptable levels.

As for critiques there are two; one minor and the other major.

The minor critique is the distracting and unabated use of the word 'zoophyte'. I looked it up and a 'zoophyte' is an animal that looks like a plant. For example, a sea anemone. It turns out that the word is obsolete in modern science. My guess is that the scientists read 'Leagues', went cross-eyed with the incessant use of the word, and decided to retire it.

The major critique is the book's unrealistic portrayal of the nature of man. In this book the submarine vessel 'Nautilus' becomes the world of Nemo and his men. Yup, men. No women. None. No sex and they're ok. Now that's just unreasonable. Nemo's experiment does not take into account the sexual needs of men. Jules Verne conveniently ignores it and I am unable to suspend my disbelief at this point.

To conclude, I am very happy I got to read this book. It is a straightforward, old-fashioned, fun adventure. It does not quite make my reread list but it is definitely a keeper for several reasons: It is a classic and my copy is a rare Airmont paperback not around anymore and I bought it in old Virra Mall, a place that now only exists in memory and this book brings back those lost days.

Thank you, Jules Verne.

Posted: March 8, 2008