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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


So. Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick (Second Edition)  (Norton Critical Editions) - Herman Melville

Much of my reading of this book was a very bumpy ride. I recall one of my teachers telling me, "Anyone can hack through anything." He was a music teacher, so he was referring to so-called music prodigies who could technically work through the notes of Paganini, but without the musical confidence, tempo, or creativity the piece deserved. Prodigies are irrelevant here, but the analogy sticks: I've technically read Moby-Dick cover to cover, but I dunno if I actually...absorbed it.

I feel kind of guilty. Coming off a reading slump, you'd think a book like this would be the worst thing ever to exacerbate that mode. Even worse, I was reading it for school, which means that 1) I had to "annotate" it (Jesus freaking Christ do I HATE staring at my own handwriting while trying to get immersed in the story!) and 2) I couldn't read it at my own speed, which made it very hard to care about anything other than my grade. Keely's highly comprehensive review, in addition to Nataliya's, helped open my mind a great deal, but for other unspecified personal reasons, I wasn't prepared enough.

I think the worst mistake I made was to try settling into a "reading pattern," to attack the text as a sort of therapy, which is my default approach for dense classics that scare the shit out of me. For those who have not read it yet, let me just say that will probably not work. This book is as wild and unpredictable as the sea. It'll change on the fly the second you think you've got the author figured out, especially if you're struggling through it in half-zombie mode, like I was. Philosophical digressions, metaphors, changes in point of view, pages of imagery and description, on and on and on. Honestly, I can imagine myself loving it; books like this remind me how sometimes the experience is more the reader's fault than the author's. I can appreciate the feeling of combining philosophical depth and fearless adventure, both literary-wise and plot-wise, but I think I'd have to be ready for it.

Nevertheless, despite a large portion of the story completely flying over my head, flashes of genius shone through, especially as 150 pages in I managed to force myself to reread everything I'd gone through up to that point all over again. The "loom of time/mat-maker" analogy still stands out as one of the most surreal passages I've ever read, possibly even in the English language. The time when the crew of the Pequod catches its first whale is told so vividly that the whole scene can be experienced almost completely on a visceral level, with the highs and lows of human emotion matched only by the tumultuousness of the sea conveyed in a matter of three or so pages. Ishmael is so spellbound in that scene, so overwhelmed by the greatness of the ocean and the danger of having his life teetering on the line that it's kind of funny in retrospect, but I'd be lying if I said I haven't craved a climactic moment like that in my own life. There's one time in one of those oh-so-infamous whaling passages when Ishmael gives a warning about being careful of swinging bloody pieces of whale blubber boxing you in the ears which made me laugh, as do a lot of the surprisingly humorous moments in the book.


And then, there are moments like this:

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. Tomorrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp--all others but liars!

How passionate, how cautionary! What could have caused Ishmael to say these things? What amazing wisdom am I missing out on? What caused the cheerful, jokey Ishmael to suddenly turn so dark? I'd grasp and hope, only to be swallowed back into a tidal wave of incomprehensible writing.

The weird thing is, I'd never have approached Moby-Dick on my own, but being forced to read it by school made it difficult to make the experience my own. In the end, I'm actually quite thankful to have broken that aggravatingly self-perpetuating cycle, so I think I've only myself to blame, and school to be grateful for. There were times when I wanted to tear out the pages just so I wouldn't be obligated to read it, but that's hardly Melville's fault, and I think I ultimately managed to get over myself just fine.

Of course, there's also the rather mind blowing ending, which builds to a pretty shocking climax and all the built up emotion is subsequently purged from the audience in one decisive go. Unexpected but inevitable equilibrium is asserted: "a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago." The following epilogue concludes with Ishmael referring to himself as an orphan, and I couldn't help but circle back to the first--and in hindsight, so much more powerful--line of the story, "Call me Ishmael."

Just running it over in my memory, that's the most striking way I've ever encountered by an author to place the main character so solidly in the role of an outcast. Coincidentally, that tends to be my favorite kind of story--1st person narration by a liminal character, more observer than active player.

I can't take full credit for the bits of understanding I managed to glean from the story. My English teacher was extremely enlightening, and I enjoyed having the more obscure metaphors and digressions spelled out to me in class. The footnotes in the Norton Edition, which although I mostly found highly annoying and disruptive to an immersive reading of the story, did supply some handy information about some of the biblical allusions that I otherwise would have missed. Greek mythology I had less of a problem with, having already had a geek-out phase earlier in my life. I imagine that lovers of Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer will also have a fairly breezy time with Melville. (not that I did, obviously--and yes, these are only part of the book, but I tend to focus on dry academic things when I struggle.)

All in all, if I ever have a chance to revisit this, it should be interesting to see what happens when I can grasp the text fully on my own terms--or Melville's terms, depending on how you look at it.