Sharks are terrifying.
Sharks are evil.
Sharks are animals; ancient, powerful, strong.
Sharks have been worshipped and mythologised, feared and adored all over the planet in all sorts of ways.
Sharks, Death, Surfers by Melissa McCarthy (published by Berlin-based indie Sternberg Press) is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’ve read a LOT of brilliant books over the past few months.
(In that way, I’ve been lucky.)
McCarthy’s book is an illustrated essay about the human obsession with sharks.
One idea it looks at in depth is how sharks function as the mirror opposite of surfers in the public imagination.
For every surfer – I paraphrase McCarthy – there is a shark, just as there is a death for every birth.
Looking at literal and symbolic liminality as a riff on the notion of water surfaces, McCarthy explores the legacies of colonial exploration as well as the confused and amorphous cultures that have arisen in the countries of the Pacific where a fear of the giant ocean (and its creatures) formed more of the colonial narrative than did the damned exploits of the Atlantic.
In the Atlantic, it was the men sailing that were [seen to be] most dangerous, not the waters themselves.
Surfing was a pastime practised for a long time in Hawaii, and McCarthy explores the record of this that exists in the writing left behind by members of Captain Cook’s crew in the late eighteenth century.
Captain Cook himself – who was killed (probably with justification) in Hawaii – didn’t write about surfing, though maybe he would have got round to doing so if he hadn’t been a corpse on that long voyage home…
Back then, the act of surfing was seen by the European sailors as something reckless but compelling: multiple crew members, many of whom did not leave journals as full as the captain’s, wrote about surfing, describing the act of riding the waves in language that is clear to a contemporary reader, though quite jarring: “surfing” (due to the popularity of hippie/stoner/surfer culture in the 1960s and then the part played by “surfing” in early, California-based, internet language) is a term we are familiar with.
“surfing” it is not a word that requires explanation or description.
Centuries on from that voyage, there are other popular sports derived from surfing: skateboarding and snowboarding.
Surfing, an indigenous Hawaiian pastime, has permeated throughout international culture.
Sharks, too, are things that everybody knows.
In cities and countries that meet the sea there is reason to know them, but the popularity of films like Jaws and also of massive aquariums shows that sharks are something you do not have to need to know to know.
They are ancient and they bring – and they mean – death.
Sharks bring death to the surfer, and death to anyone else who risks the seas.
McCarthy writes about initiatives by conservationists and life guard institutions to keep swimmers separate from sharks and she explores the [partial} successes and the inevitable failures.
She writes about the rise and then fall of demand for shark as a popular – and meaning-laden – foodstuff.
She writes about the changing graphic design choices of the first few editions of the novel of Jaws and she writes about the varying depictions of shark and sharkness in cultures and objects ancient, modern and contemporary.
Discussion of “exploration” and liminality and colonialism turns into writing about borders and the meanings and problems of lines drawn on maps, and how the idea of states choosing to limit themselves at the sea similarly causes problems.
It is about animals, it is about people and it is about cultural expression.
It’s also about obituaries.
Sharks, Death, Surfers is a beautiful book as an object, filled with photographs and images that illustrate the ideas and histories it describes.
McCarthy – and Sternberg Press – have produced a wonderful, energetic, informative and deeply engaging text here, and I definitely recommend it as a top mini non-fiction pick for anyone looking for good literary gift ideas.
Really worth a read, a thoroughly perfect book.
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