When best-selling author Nathaniel Philbrick set out to write a book about the ship Essex, which was rammed by a sperm whale in the middle of the South Pacific in the 19th century, he didn't want it to be a whaling story, but a story of survival.

"From the beginning, I knew I wanted it to be a story that if you knew nothing about whaling and didn't care much about the sea, I wanted to introduce it in a way that might just sort of harpoon you," Philbrick told a crowd of more than 600 people at the New Canaan High School auditorium Friday, April 4.

Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea," a New York Times best-seller, was New Canaan Library's choice for the inaugural One Book New Canaan, a townwide reading project that began in February in partnership with Elm Street Books. The program culminated with Philbrick's visit at the high school, where he talked about the process behind writing the book.

Published in 2000, the book tells the gut-wrenching story of the whaling ship Essex, which left Nantucket, Mass., for the South Pacific in 1819 with 20 crew members aboard. The ship was struck by a whale in the middle of the ocean, leaving the crew stranded in three tiny boats for more than 90 days. During that time, the crew suffered from the weather, hunger and disease, and eventually took extreme measures to survive, including cannibalism. The ordeal involving the Essex inspired Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," Philbrick's favorite book.

If Philbrick still had doubts that his goal of writing a book that would appeal to readers of all ages and interests was achieved, One Book New Canaan proved the book was a success across the board.

Lisa Oldham, the library's executive director, said about 400 people borrowed the book in five different formats from the library and more than 100 others purchased it from Elm Street Books. In addition, two classes at the high school read it as part of the English curriculum.

"The response of this has been so tremendous," Oldham said. "Over the course of the past two months, we've had so much engagement."

Oldham said about 65 children in town read "Revenge of the Whale," the younger readers' version of the book. She also said about 700 people attended at least one of the several book-related programs the library conducted in the past two months. Additionally, book clubs hosted discussions in person and on social media, Oldham said.

Philbrick said he was pleased to have New Canaan read his book together.

"It is a great honor to have a community pick one of my books for this program," he said.

Philbrick, who always loved sailing and tales of the sea, grew up in Pennsylvania, but he moved to Nantucket, where he still lives, in 1986. "I was a sailor trapped in Pittsburgh," he said.

Philbrick was an English major and worked at Sailing World magazine, which used to be based in Darien, in the early 1980s. He said it was at Sailing World that he "really became trained as a professional writer."

Ever since he moved to Nantucket, Philbrick has written seven non-fiction books with stories that take place on or by the sea.

"In the Heart of the Sea" won the 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction. A movie based on the book is scheduled for release in March 2015.

Philbrick said he went after primary documents, including an account from the ship's cabin boy, to recount the events of the Essex maritime disaster. For months and months, he said, all he did was research multiple accounts of the story to try to come up with the best description of that event.

"What's interesting with history is that 75 percent of my time is researching and organizing material," Philbrick said. "It's sort of like painting a room in your house, where the prep is everything."

Though he wanted to make the language as engaging as possible, Philbrick felt he needed to go after the scientific explanations to understand how that disaster could have happened. The whale that rammed the Essex was at least 85 feet long, almost as long as the ship, he said.

"I spent a great deal of time doing research to try to understand the science behind a whale attack," he said. "If a whale hits a ship, what happens? What are the physics of this?"

One of the attendees, New Canaan resident Shirley Phelps, said Philbrick answered those questions really well.

"It's a very easy read," she said. "And it's great to hear how he developed the story."

New Canaan resident Liz Orteig, who read the book a few years ago, said the program and Friday's event made her like the book even more.

"It helped me appreciate the story," she said. "It's nice to know about his process to write; the amount of research that he did."

Several other towns, including Darien and Fairfield, have had similar reading programs for a number of years.

Orteig's husband, Steve, said the choice of "In the Heart of the Sea" to launch the program in New Canaan was "top notch."

"Everybody has different interests and there are a million books out there, but this draws a lot of interest," he said.

Steve Orteig also said he hopes One Book New Canaan becomes a regular program.

"I think it's an outstanding idea. I hope it continues," he said. "What I love about it (are) the kids in the high school getting involved with it."

Philbrick said he recently had a Skype session with a high school class and was impressed at the quality of the questions. He said students were "really prepared" and "really smart."

Oldham said the program would return and that she already had people offering to be on the book-choosing committee.

"I'm quite confident that this first One Book New Canaan has been a tremendous success," she said. "And I'm really looking forward to building on this success next year."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson