I made a lot of promises to myself back in May. My summer to-do list included some pretty big categories: cleaning, writing, organizing, reading, and kicking my macaroni and cheese addiction (although this one was a "maybe"). I wanted to get back to reading for pleasure, recently misplaced during my first year teaching composition full-time. Reading 72 student essays each week, although its own kind of discovery and reward, cannot supplant personal reading, I reasoned.
I set up "reading camp" in the living room with my To Be Read stack of books and magazines. Camp started well with new books by Sarah Manguso and David Ebenbach, and I caught up on a backlog of blogs and journals. Oh, and that stack of New Yorkers from February--I'm happy to report that progress was made! But the book that has taken almost all of my reading time the past two months was not even in my pile. I have a confession: I've fallen in love with Moby Dick.
I don’t remember exactly what put me on to the idea of reading Moby Dick, especially with so many other books ready and waiting. But, a few years ago, I started re-reading novels from my high school reading lists. I realized with some classics like Slaughterhouse Five and The Great Gatsby that I had no idea what I was reading when I was 17 years old. I didn’t understand the complexity of loss and grief back then. Returning to these books with some life experience has given me a greater appreciation for both the stories being told and each author’s craft.
Although I never had a high school teacher (or college professor) assign Moby Dick, I have always known it was a book I "should" read. Although before this summer, I honestly thought my life would be rather complete without reading it and that I could get by in literary conversations with common knowledge I had of the novel. In other words, I would have been perfectly content to "fake it" the rest of my life. <*hangs head in shame*>
The main reason I wasn’t interested in reading the book was influenced by others. They all complained about the 800 pages (which never stopped me before), organized into chapters upon chapters of things that seem irrelevant including, but not limited to, how to pack a ship for a long voyage; the belief systems of cannibals as understood by a New Englander; the best way to stow tow lines on a wooden deck (spoiler alert: two boxes, not one!); how to extract spermaceti (don't ask); and how whales are classified. When I settled on reading the book, I opted for the easily-transportable electronic version of the text which alleviated size and weight concerns. Crisis averted!
One thing I hadn’t counted on was how much Moby Dick would teach me about my own writing and reading habits. There are lessons that are staying with me as lessons-by-example that would not have registered, or had practical application, had I read these ideas in a how-to text. Here are five things I am (still) learning (because I'm only 54% of the way through the book according to my e-reader):
Well, the school year is beginning and I did not finish my summer reading project. The good news is Moby Dick, Ahab, Ishmael, and the sailors on the Pequod await me every night, those precious few moments I can read a page or three before falling asleep. Seeing the e-reader on my nightstand is its own kind of rewarding dessert at the end of each day. If only I could stop dreaming about whales.
The Road to Melville by Nathaniel Philbrick
What Moby Dick Means to Me by Philip Hoare
David Gilbert’s take on Moby Dick via The Atlantic
Last but not least, my most favorite Moby Dick cartoon by Zachary Kanin from The New Yorker: