Wednesday, March 19, 2008

January - March Reads: or, My Own Battle with the White Whale

It's taken about ten weeks, but I've finally finished reading Moby Dick, my first accomplishment in my year of reading dangerously. I knew this would be one of the most difficult book on my list, so tackling it first seemed the best course of action. I've also decided that until the 12 'dangerous' books are read, I'm not allowed to read any other books.

I've been struggling with how to organise my thoughts about Moby Dick. I did like it, even loved parts of it. I just found it extremely difficult to read. Thanks to a steady diet of literary trash, my mind has become the equivalent of a couch potato - obese and lazy. Tackling Moby Dick was a little bit like a sedentary person running a marathon, only not medically perilous.

Moby Dick is touted as the greatest American novel, a claim which I now understand, but cannot support. For my money, that would be The Great Gatsby. But such labels are misleading and subjective. Plus, to which standard do you hold books, given that the accepted norms of writing have changed so much in the last 150 years?

A while back, a frustrated author submitted to about 20 publishers and agents the first chapter plus a synopsis of a Jane Austen book. He was shocked (shocked I say!) to receive across-the-board rejections, only one of which indicated that the reader was onto his game. All of the fustering about this on the radio amused me to no end. Anyone writing today can tell you how hard it is to get published - I'd doubt most of those publishers/agents even read the full submission.

I digress. My point is that however much it is beloved and revered, Moby Dick wouldn't have a chance of publication today. Not in its whole form, which includes about 200 pages of exhaustive detail on whales and the whaling industry. Two wise friends, one of whom is an English teacher at a college, counseled me to skim or even skip the chapters of whaling minutia. I fought this advice until I realised it was the only way I was ever going to finish the book.

The beginning of the book is also antithetical to modern story-telling. Melville gives Ishmael four pages to justify his desire to take to the sea. Then the story starts at the very beginning, with packing and a journey to New Bedford to start the search for a whaling ship. Moby Dick, the grand character of the title, isn't even mentioned in the first quarter of the book. In modern story-telling, a book is more apt to start in the middle of the action and then drop in the background, as needed, throughout the rest of the book.

So why has the book endured as a classic all these many years? It's a great story, with a charming voice, memorable characters, and universal themes. What more do you want? I was surprised by how funny some of the writing is. Whether Ishmael is talking about his motivation for sailing off
"...whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off-then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can"

or making a point about hair oil
"In truth, a mature man who uses hair-oil, unless medicinally, that man has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere. As a general rule, he can't amount to much in his totality."

the observations are pointed, well-expressed, and dryly humorous. Such unexpected gems are scattered liberally throughout the book. I never expected to laugh when I was reading Moby Dick, but I did.

Whenever you walk away from a book yet retain images of the characters in your head and have a desire to wonder about those characters, then you know the author has done a perfect job. Such is the case, especially with Ahab, although Starbuck and Queequeg also hold a special place in my heart. Captain Ahab, with his ivory leg and unconquerable, tragic desire to hunt the white whale, is probably going to live in my head forever.

And you can't really mention the good captain without talking about the themes of the book. The one that spoke to me the most was the danger of becoming singularly obsessed with an irrational goal. When you pursue something past the point of all reason, ignoring all advice and ill portents, you will meet a bad end and drag everyone else down with you.

"But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of the demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed."

Would I read it again? Absolutely. But I'd probably go with this edition. Call me Ishmael, I mean, Lazy.

Next up, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.


At 19 March 2008 at 08:11, Blogger Lola said...

Well done for finishing! I made the mistake of choosing to try listening to the audio version, on cassette where it's near impossible to skip passages and remain with the story. Had to give up when the descriptions of whales started to suck the life out of me. That was a while ago, perhaps I should try again with the print version.

You should have an easier time of it with Dr Jekyll and his pal.

At 19 March 2008 at 10:16, Blogger Sweet Irene said...

You critique a book very well and I wonder if you have ever done this for a living? Listening to you talk about it, makes you curious enough to want to try it, even though you forewarn us.

I wonder what you will think of the Dr Jekyll book? Good luck getting started on it.

At 19 March 2008 at 11:20, Blogger laurie said...

i thought that thing about the writer and the jane austen manuscript was an urban myth....

i think you should not be so stringent in not allowing yourself other books until you polish off the difficult ones. i would worry that it would make reading a bit of a chore.

i'm going slowly through "the whisperers" which is 700 pages long. but i'm also reading other stuff along the way. sometimes your brain wants tough, and sometimes it wants easy.

At 19 March 2008 at 13:09, Blogger Kaycie said...

Good for you! I'm not very far into the book, and your review gives me incentive to keep going. Nice review.

At 19 March 2008 at 16:05, Blogger W&MGrad said...

I totally agree with you on The Great Gatsby. I've always said the 3 great works of American literature are "The Great Gatsby," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Scarlet Letter."

As for Moby Dick, well I read it 18 years ago and haven't ever looked back. I do agree that it wouldn't get published today--whaling is just too politically incorrect.

At 20 March 2008 at 00:24, Anonymous Harlequin said...

There's a great bit in Star Trek: First Contact, where Captain Picard is insisting on fighting the Borg, against all sanity and logic and his companion Lily shouts at him in frustration "Captain Ahab has to go hunt his whale!" Picard is shocked by the realisation that his desire for vengeance is consuming him and will destroy him and his ship. He quotes that bit about "if his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it". And Lily is confused and confesses that she never read it. Hee. :-)

I like the year of reading dangerously idea but maybe you could try to space them out a little - reward yourself for finishing a tough book by giving yourself a treat of an old favourite or some tasty trash in between Good Books. Might make it easier on you? Good luck!

At 20 March 2008 at 03:39, Blogger ped crossing said...

I can't say that Moby Dick has ever been on my need to read list. And since the stack is taller than I am, it probably won't make it on it.

Maybe I'll just read the cliff notes.

At 20 March 2008 at 06:01, Blogger -Ann said...

Lola - Yes, that indeed would have been a mistake. Sure, give it another go with the printed version.

SI - Nope. I once volunteered on a book review site but I quit after the first review. I did have a freelance gig reviewing video games once upon a time. :)

Laurie - You know, I anticipated you saying something like that and nearly put my reasoning in my post. I know me well - if I were to read other books, I would end up abandoning the difficult book. I am all about the path of least resistance in these matters.

Kaycie - Thanks. I hope you enjoy it!

w&mgrad - Good point on the politically incorrect thing - I hadn't thought of that. I really must read To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harlequin - It's amazing how these things have become cultural references, even for people who've never opened the book. Don't worry, I won't be too super-strict with myself. For example, I've holidays planned for May and July and I sure don't plan to use The Rights of Man as my airplane reading. :)

PC - I really think if you could get your hands on the illustrated classic, it would be perfect. Plus, when the Sweets are older, they would enjoy it too.

At 20 March 2008 at 22:49, Blogger Kaycie said...

You really should read "To Kill a Mockingbird". I think you'll love it. Scout is a wonderful character.

At 21 March 2008 at 00:39, Blogger J said...

Um...New Bedford is in Massachusetts, not Connecticut.

My husband read "Moby Dick" to the kids last year (even the whaling industry detail, which the boys rather liked), then we went to the New Bedford Whaling Museum for Father's Day to tie it all together. It gave us all a wholly different perspective on it all. They do love their Moby Dick in New Bedford.

But, yes, congratulations for finishing it. No small feat.

At 22 March 2008 at 08:25, Blogger -Ann said...

J - Doh! Thanks for the correction - I've edited the post. I think I'd gotten it confused in my head with Mystic.


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