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.