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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Search of a Hero ...




Putting aside Bill and Monica (Yes! Let's do that!), one of the more intriguing American cultural phenomena of the 1990s is the surging popularity of Patrick O'Brian's sea stories, known to their armada of readers as the "Aubrey-Maturin novels."


How to explain these books to the unaddicted? They feature Capt. Jack Aubrey, a British Royal Navy officer of the early 1800s who is distinguished by two qualities: his prodigious appetite for food and drink, and his utter fearlessness in combat.


Capt. Jack is interested in sex, too, but less so than in eating or fighting. In these respects he embodies the essential male fantasy life.


Aubrey's sidekick is a more intellectual gentleman named Stephen Maturin. He is the ship's physician and an amateur naturalist who's always bugging Capt. Jack to let him go ashore and look for exotic animals, such as giant turtles, wombats and sloths. But Maturin, too, is secretly a man of action - he's a spy who foments a tidy covert action in Mauritius in one book and is viciously tortured in another.


The books, in short, are escapist reading for middle-aged males - sort of the Hardy Boys updated. They contain enough historical detail to feel like serious books, but they're so easy to read - and so addictive - that they seem like mind candy (though closer to fine Belgian chocolates than M&Ms).


With about 4 million books in print, O'Brian hardly rivals Tom Clancy or Stephen King in terms of mass audience. But there's a cult quality to these books, as evidenced by web sites devoted to charting Aubrey's voyages and explaining O'Brian's exotic nautical terms. That cult is wonderfully eclectic, by the way, ranging from liberal anchorman Walter Cronkite to centrist Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to conservative and actor Charlton Heston.


I've gobbled down five of the Aubrey-Maturin books in the past two months, a reading rate I haven't matched since I completed the Archie and Jughead oeuvre in high school. That makes me a piker in the O'Brian club, with 14 books still to go - and the disturbing thing is, I'm likely to read them all.


Yet why are these books so likable? They're certainly well written. O'Brian captures the manners and morals of the day in ways that sometimes give the books the feel of Jane Austen at sea. And they are prodigiously well researched (the sort of thing Capt. Jack might say), offering an engrossing account of the naval battles of the Napoleonic wars.


But I suspect the Aubrey-Maturin books also engage our national obsession with self-improvement. Just as my mother's generation liked to read Jane Austen partly to know how to behave, surely some of O'Brian's readers devour the books because they want to know how to command. For that is Capt. Jack's true genius. He often makes a mess of things ashore, but at sea, he's a titan - a man whose boldness and serene confidence make Warren Buffett look indecisive.


So, in the spirit of self-improvement that colors our age, I have compiled a brief compendium of Capt. Jack's management tips. Here are six simple secrets that can help you manage like Capt. Jack himself:


Spare the lash. Like any good officer, Aubrey believes in discipline but not to the point that it demoralizes and intimidates the crew. He's also suspicious of boats that are too neat and expresses no sorrow when a tyrannical neatness freak named Capt. Corbett is killed, apparently by his own sailors. Similarly ...


A happy ship is a good ship. Aubrey frets about maintaining harmonious relationships among his men. He despises the seagoing version of office politics and he maintains his sanguine composure through the darkest moments of battle. He is utterly loyal to his subordinates, who return that loyalty time and again.


Exercise the guns regularly. Aubrey is obsessive about this, requiring his crews to fire repeatedly at practice targets to improve their speed and accuracy. In modern CEO-speak, this translates into maintaining peak quality control in your core business.


"Hold the weather gauge." Capt. Jack is always repeating this obscure bromide as he prepares for battle. According to Dean King, who has written several companion books to the O'Brian novels, it means staying upwind as you attack. This helps you take the offensive, but it makes retreat difficult. As Capt. Jack likes to say, quoting his hero Lord Nelson, "Go right at 'em!"


Lead by example. In battle, Aubrey jumps into the thick of things with his men, leading the boarding parties with a cheer. He's miserable in one book when he's promoted to commodore and has to watch the fighting from a distance.


Be spontaneous. Jack Aubrey is not a man who likes to think too long about anything; he makes decisions intuitively. Similarly, he's never afraid to make a fool of himself - bursting into hearty song, delivering horrible puns, playing chamber music with Maturin on the eve of combat.


What worries fans of O'Brian, who is 84, is that Capt. Jack's long voyage may be ending soon. But Starling Lawrence, who edits the books for W. W. Norton, says he has five chapters of the next Aubrey-Maturin book,No. 20, on his desk. He has an outline of the ending, too, and it looks as though Capt. Jack is setting sail for a new adventure in South Africa.


David Ignatius is a novelist and an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post, to which he contributed this article.