I first learned about Patrick O'Brian through David Mamet, of all people. He claimed--I think it was in an interview--that the best novelists then writing (this was 15 years ago) weren't the so-called "literary" ones (Auster, DeLillo, Roth, etc): they were genre writers. As examples he listed John LeCarre and Patrick O'Brian. I read LeCarre almost immediately. (He's excellent, by the way). O'Brian, for some reason, I put off. Maybe I wasn't ready for twenty straight 300-page novels. I think I knew that once I started, I wouldn't stop. It was a big commitment.
Five years ago, I finally picked up Master and Commander, the first book in the series. I read it, then I read the series. A year later, I read the series again. In the process, I bought eight of the novels. Perhaps unfortunately, they now reside six inches from my reading chair. The result is that I reread them over and over--generally to the neglect of whatever book (usually 'literary') I'm supposed to be reading. At this point, I've probably read each of them at least ten times. I know them better than anything else in my shelves.
I don't have the time or ability to attempt a full-length appreciation of O'Brian. Briefly: he is amazing, and I would encourage you all to read him. As far as it's possible to know what it would be like to live in a different era, O'Brian, I think, knew. (By which I mean: imagined.) To read him is to have, at least in flashes, hints of that same knowledge. He's a writer of phenomenal intellect and great wisdom, of course; but more than that, he is a writer, like Shakespeare, able to depict fully-realized portraits of society on every level. Dukes and princes, admirals and captains, sailors and whores: they're all there. None of them are sentimentalized, and all of them are somehow real.
Big claims, I know, and ones that I can't illustrate in a single passage. Here, though, is one of my (current) favorites. The ship is about to leave port. "Jack" is Jack Aubrey, the captain and one of the book's heroes. The other character, Heaven, is insignificant to the plot:
...and now they had been together long enough, with a good deal of foul weather and some very hard fighting, to have formed a distinct community with a great sense of their ship and a great pride in her.
A somewhat anomalous community however in a ship that looked so very like a man-of-war, for not only did it contain no Marines, no uniformed officers and no midshipmen, but people walked about at ease, even with their hands in their pockets; there was a certain amount of laughter in the forecastle in spite of the parting; and the quartermaster at the con, wiping a tear from his cheek and shaking his grey head, did not scruple to address Jack directly: "I shall never see her like again, sir. The loveliest young woman in Shelmerston."
"A lovely young woman indeed, Heaven," said Jack. "Mrs. Heaven, if I do not mistake?"
"Why, sir, in a manner of speaking: but some might say more on the porcupine-lay, the roving-line, if you understand me."
"There is a good deal to be said for porcupines, Heaven: Solomon had a thousand, and Solomon knew what o'clock it was, I believe. You will certainly see her again."