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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

I Waited All My Life to Read Moby-Dick

I am finally reading Moby-Dick: or, The Whale by Herman Melville.

It used to be a point of perverse pride with me that I successfully completed two English degree programs and most of a Ph.D. and had never read the iconic novel. It was almost a challenge—try to avoid this American novel and still say, “I’m an English major” in an American university. It helped that I emphasized Anglo-Saxon language and literature, concentrating on everything written before the year 1200 in England.

So as Beowulf would cry, hwæt! þu rēd Moby-Dick? Wundorlic!

I have read only the first few chapters and already am delighted with the style:

“. . . yet, somehow, I never fancied broiling fowls;—though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a boiled fowl than I will.”

And the philosophical musings:

[On joining the crew of a whaling ship] “And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it.”

Ha! I love that.

“. . . there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us.”

Take that, Adam and Eve!

I don’t think I would have appreciated these kinds of passages and Melville’s style when I was in my 20s. It took me a long time to appreciate the discursive, the rambling, the interpolative, and the beautifully wrought convolutions that characterize Moby-Dick. When I was in my 20s, I was reading for story, themes, and character. Those made far easier-to-write critical papers than did literary style. Now I have time and taste for the intricate workings of language, and I am glad I did not read this novel until this time when I appreciate it fully.

I do not think it is fair to this book or to students to make them read this novel. This is a novel for the reading connoisseur.

If I go along in this same manner, making notes on all the passages that strike me, I am going to finish reading this book sometime in the year 2024 if not later. But since the year 2024 will come whether or not I read this novel, I’ll keep reading and keep you updated, shall I?

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