historian and devotee of rock bios

Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick.
Nathaniel Philbrick. Handout

Nathaniel Philbrick has never had to look far for inspiration. Nantucket, where he makes his home, inspired his National Book Award-winning “In the Heart of the Sea.” “Bunker Hill,” which is just out, retells the story of the first major battle of the American Revolution.

BOOKS: What are you reading on your book tour?

PHILBRICK: When you called I was just reading Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” I’m getting into it. I had just finished F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night,” which I loved. For a change of pace, I wanted to get in more of a historical, large-canvas mode. “War and Peace” is such a big book I can get lost in it and not think about schedules and stuff.


BOOKS: Do you take a different kind of reading on book tours?

PHILBRICK: I do work-related stuff on airplanes. Then when I’m in the hotel room or just vegging out, I read for pleasure. I feel like I catch up on books when I’m on tour.

BOOKS: What are you reading on planes these days?

PHILBRICK: It’s related to the revolution, “The War for America, 1775-1783” by Piers Mackesy and John Shy. It gives the British perspective on the how the revolution was conducted. It’s really good, a classic kind of history that comes from the archives but with a voice and a perspective.

BOOKS: Do you read much nonfiction beyond history?

PHILBRICK: I also love the history of rock ’n’ roll. This fall I read Neil Young’s “Waging Heavy Peace” and Pete Townshend’s “Who I Am: A Memoir.” The Townshend is consciously crafted, but Young’s memoir is like one of his songs. It goes on a lot longer than it should, but by the end you are going, “Yeah, this is really good.”

BOOKS: When you read fiction, do you typically read older books?


PHILBRICK: No, I recently finished “The Cloud Atlas” by Liam Callanan and really liked it. It’s such a magic trick, that book. I also always have a bunch of books going on at once. I’m just finishing up the second volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, “The Last Lion.” I’m also reading Barry Unsworth’s novel about the slave trade, “Sacred Hunger,” which I’m really enjoying.

BOOKS: Did you come across any big readers among the historical figures in “Bunker Hill”?

PHILBRICK: Joseph Warren, like a lot of revolutionary leaders, was into Enlightenment literature. He read Joseph Addison’s “Cato,” of which George Washington was also a fan. So I read that play. I read a lot of Tobias Smollett’s novels. I had only previously read “The Expedition of Humphry Clinker” before. They are all hilarious and picaresque. Those books were on the reading lists of Washington and other generals.

BOOKS: Were there any readers among the passengers on the Mayflower?

PHILBRICK: They all had their Bibles — probably the annotated versions that a good Puritan would have. The book I enjoyed reading the most for that project was the journal by the colony’s founder, William Bradford, “On Plymouth Plantation.” It is such a pleasure to read it’s easy to miss the artistry.

BOOKS: What about on the whaling ship the Essex?

PHILBRICK: Nantucket was a Quaker-based culture so they were not readers. There’s a great Nantucket-based novel from the 19th century that Melville read for his research for “Moby-Dick”: “Miriam Coffin” by Joseph Hart. During some illness Hart went to the island for his health and got all these historic stories there. He then wrote a great potboiler about a notorious she-merchant, as she was called.


BOOKS: Do you read on your own boat?

PHILBRICK: Yes. We’ve got a yawl named the Phebe, which is named for a boat in a whaling journal my father and I edited. We keep a copy of the journal on board. But whatever you read, there’s no better place to read than the cockpit or the berth of a boat. It’s kind of like being in a womb.


Follow us on Facebook or @GlobeBiblio on Twitter.