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An Ode to Clive Cussler and Why Your Reading Should Be Fun
When Clive Cussler published his first book in 1973, at the age of 42, his goal was simply to make a little extra money so that his family of five could travel and explore the world a bit more. Little did he know that The Mediterranean Caper would be the genesis of a decades-long writing career that would propel him to a spot among the best-selling American authors of all time.
Cussler first took up novel writing in 1965 as a way to cure his boredom after his wife Barbara took a night shift at their local police department. When dinner was cleaned up and the kids were in bed, he would turn to the page and let his imagination run wild.
He wasn’t a novice writer, though. In his earlier years, Cussler was an award-winning copywriter and creative director for some of the top advertising agencies in the industry, where he honed the craft of creating evocative scenes and memorable turns of phrase.
His prose never garnered a literary award, but it’s pure fun and always compelling. You just have to turn the page to find out what happens next.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of his first published book, I wanted to dig into my long-time love for the story-telling treasure who taught me an important lesson about books and reading.
My own experience with Clive Cussler’s books started in 2009. For years I had been hanging on to a tattered old copy of Raise the Titanic. The book was rather sentimental but for perhaps the wrong reasons: It was a gift from my biological father, who is also a voracious reader. He had read that copy in his younger years and thought I would enjoy it.
I put off reading it myself, though. Maybe it was out of spite borne from his absence; maybe it was simply due to lack of interest — this many years later, my memory regarding that small detail eludes me. The small paperback always moved with me between dorm rooms and friends’ basements, but sat unread for a handful of years.
In another lapse of memory from my twenties — does this happen to everyone? — I don’t recall the circumstances that got me to finally read it. So let’s just say that I grabbed the book one random day, cracked it open, and sped through its pages.
The plot was outrageous: On order from the President himself, marine explorer Dirk Pitt is tasked with salvaging a secret material from the holds of the Titanic. To do that — remember, this 1976 story pre-dated the discovery of the ship by nine years — Pitt has to raise the great wreck from the ocean floor and haul it to its original intended destination of New York City.
I couldn’t put it down.
Raise the Titanic’s potent mix of historical mystery, alternate history, and action thriller gripped me in a way that few books had at that point in my life.
Over the course of the next two years, I averaged more than one Cussler title per month, eagerly finishing each of them within days of starting. I told my friends about him, even getting my best pal Jonny in on the obsession.
Cussler’s books, however silly some of the plots seemed, were a big part of my learning that reading could and should be fun rather than just entirely practical or educational. (Sometimes those things overlap, but not always.)
After getting through about 30 of his books in just a few years, I hadn’t thought about Clive Cussler a whole lot since then. But a recent trip to the Cussler Museum here in Arvada, Colorado — where I’ve lived for almost eight years — reminded me of that lesson all over again.
Jonny and I communicate almost daily but hadn’t seen each other in over five years before last week. The TL;DR is that I flew to Iowa to surprise him for his ordination ceremony and then we flew back to Denver together to hang out here for a few days.
We played Scrabble in coffee shops, browsed over-stuffed bookstores, walked a couple local trails, and enjoyed a few quality beers. The highlight, though, was our visit to the Cussler Museum, which houses Clive’s collection of 60+ pristine vintage cars1 — from a 1906 Stanley Steamer to a 1965 Corvette Stingray and dozens of unique builds between.
Cussler, who passed away in 2020, was not only a bestselling author but also one of America’s great car collectors. The cars were never an investment or a status symbol; they were simply something he enjoyed. He liked the craftsmanship and the beauty of a finely-made machine. As he wrote on the museum’s website:
“After the Dirk Pitt books became bestsellers, I could afford to buy the more exotic examples of classic autos. I purchased a 1955 Rolls Royce that my wife liked because it was new the year we were married. Then came a 1926 Hispano Suiza cabriolet that I bought at my first classic car auction after I had three martinis. As more cars were added I had to buy a warehouse. . . . I never dreamed that one day I would own over 100 exotic cars. . . .
Someday they'll be looked upon as mechanical masterworks of art and receive the admiration that is given to the Van Goghs and Rembrandts.”
Every inch of the museum spoke to the legacy of a man who craved adventure and always had a smile on his face while seeking it out.
It was impossible not to be impressed by the care that went into each of the vehicles. I don’t even care about cars — I drive a 2015 light blue minivan for crying out loud — and I was in awe while walking around and reading the placards that told each auto’s story.
Jonny and I loved the experience because we knew that Cussler put so much love into it himself.
That same spirit of earnest enjoyment and adventure is infused directly into Cussler’s books. They fit into that special kind of story where the plot drives the pages forward and the writing doesn’t get in the way. That’s actually the whole trick of “genre” fiction.2 If the prose is too artsy, you can lose the story; if the prose is too lazy, you’ll notice it and not even care where the story goes anymore. That middle ground of not noticing the writing is really hard to accomplish — and what Cussler did so well.
And the plots! They’re always outlandish at first blush. Raising the Titanic. Finding the lost city of Atlantis. Recovering a long-lost nuke that’s gotten into the hands of terrorists. But when you start looking into the genesis of these stories, it quickly becomes apparent that all of them have been taken seriously by very smart people at some point or another. Cussler just took those basic outlines and advanced them a step further into the realm of speculation.
As I said above, regardless of the believability of Dirk Pitt’s exploits (not to mention the other series that Cussler created in the 2000s), you’ll always have a good time following along. The stakes are high, but never stressful — it’s easy to have fun with them as a reader because you know that Cussler had a lot of fun dreaming up and writing the stories.
Looking back, that early lesson about reading — that books can and should be fun — is one of the most important things I’ve learned. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that there’s a straight line from Raise the Titanic to this newsletter.
While I certainly believe that reading should sometimes offer an intellectual challenge and stretch your worldview, we all also need to make plenty of room for guilt-free fun in the books we choose.
There are no guilty pleasures in our reading choices — just pleasures.
In honor of Clive Cussler, I hope you’ll read at least one of his Dirk Pitt books — if not many more. (My recommendation is to start with any of the 15 titles published between 1973 and 1999.) And if you’re in the Denver metro area, it’s well worth your time to come out to Arvada to visit the Cussler Museum. You won’t regret it.
There are actually over 100 cars in the collection, but there are 60 on public display at any given time.
“Genre fiction” is tough to define, but in the publishing industry it’s basically anything that isn’t contemporary, realistic fiction. Horror, thriller, sci-fi, romance, Westerns, etc. They’re generally story-forward rather than prose-forward.