I was one of those kids in high school who was assigned to read Moby Dick. It was AP English, and all 15 of us were bored silly, except for this one kid, whom I’ll call Scott (his real name). Scott, like our crazed junior-year English teacher, had palpable enthusiam for the longest book I’d ever tried to read. I can’t believe he was that into the mating habits of whales, but there it is.
The rest of us groaned and shared the Cliff Notes. My history teacher at the time, one of the coolest intellectuals I’d ever met, told us we were, in this case as in so many others, too young to enjoy such a fine piece of work. He told us to reread it in ten years. I vowed NEVER to do such a thing.
Ten years later I am enrolled in my first graduate class in English literature. It’s a summer class – we meet eight hours a week, and we proceed to read 1500 pages of Melville: Typee, Bartleby, The Confidence Man (my favorite), Benito Cereno, his poetry, a few other short stories, and of course, Moby Dick.
We read Moby Dick in ten days. The first day of class our prof warned: “If you’re working full-time you will not be able to keep up with this class.” True dat.
I probably skipped about 50 pages of Moby Dick this go around. A 400 percent increase from the first time. Yes, it’s long. Yes, Melville is fastidious. Yes, it’s a dude, sailing-quest tale. But the narrator is jovial, the characters are Dickensian in their characterness, and the story is a familiar one. Plus, it’s one of the first ethnographic approaches to literature. How cool is that?
Eight years after the second reading, I downloaded Moby Dick. There it is, on my First Generation iPod Nano, taking up up a whole heckuva lotta space. But it’s brilliantly narrated and one of the beauties behind Moby Dick (SPOILER ALERT) is that everyone knows the ending (mass destruction and death), but it’s still a good story. And each chapter, much like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio is a vignette These vignettes can be appreciated in any order.
So when I’m out walking I’ll go from Nelly to Tim McGraw to Elvis Costello to Moby Dick. One chapter at a time, in no particular order.
Most who have read or studied Melville know that he himself was aboard a whaling ship and did some first-rate research for his masterpiece while on that ship.
For GreatHistory.com last week, I wrote about another whaler’s adventures in the 1840’s: this time a woman by the name of Martha Smith Brewer Brown.