Moby Dick, or the White Whale, or a Book That Would Have Been Even Awesomer if Melville Had Had an Editor

moby dick imageI’ve spent the last couple of days futilely trying to transfer my Moby Dick highlights from my iPad to my computer. Even after synching my iPad and my Kindle, the only Kindle clipping that shows up in my computer folder is the quote from Scoresby that I highlighted only because I thought that if I highlighted one passage on my Kindle, then all the highlighted passages would show up.

No sale.

Which is just as well, because I think I might be a bit overwhelmed by the amount of religious symbolism I highlighted and annotated. Then I’d feel all this pressure to write something intelligent about God and the devil and man’s search for meaning. So let me talk (so to speak) about other things.

First, as I have said from the first few chapters, I really enjoyed Melville’s approach to the narration. Ishmael is a piece of work – sarcastic, ironic, observant – who somehow keeps Melville’s epic connections to the Greeks, Romans and obscure heroes of the Old Testament from taking over the novel. Ishmael is at his best as a narrator when he spies folly in the actions of men, and turns his wit subtly on his target. I was compelled to read many of the educational passages because I’d spot some great turn of phrase or little irony as I was vertical reading that I’d have to go back and read what I had intended to skip.

At other times, he turns descriptions of certain aspects of whales into lyric poetry. And in what was quite a surprise to me, he even messes around with form, using elements of playwriting to turn chapters into scenes of a play, or telling a particular incident from multiple points of view as his means of delivering the story.

Nevertheless, I was rather successful at skipping huge chunks of the novel, which may or may not have detracted from my enjoyment of the story, but certainly allowed me to finish the book, as the arcana of the fishery, or whalery, may have caused my head to explode far from the last pages of the story.

I have to admit to some confusion about parts of the story. While I realize that Ahab might have softened in his madness as time proceeded and there grew a human cost to his mission, I can’t figure out why Melville waited almost 500 pages before introducing the fact that Ahab had a wife and a young son, who, for whatever reason, is not given a name and exists as little more than a prop. At one point at the end, as Ahab imagines his death, he indicates that he will miss his son, who went unmentioned or even hinted at for the first few years of the journey. I get that I’m supposed to have more empathy for Ahab as he takes to Pip and develops affection toward Starbuck, but it seems kind of cheap to throw a wife and kid into the mix when they contribute nothing but their absent presence to the story.

I also have to admit to some impatience with the ending. I realized after getting to the second day of the chase that the book needed three days to deal with the theme of resurrection, but I have to confess to failing to notice any kind of rebirth. Dickens got through A Tale of Two Cities without making Sydney Carton take three days to be reborn once he hatched his unofficial prisoner exchange plan, so why did Melville need three days of whale chase to have Ahab reach his inevitable fate (which, spoiler alert, was not resurrection).

But to close this quote-free post, the thing I gained the most appreciation for was the opportunity to study a novel with someone who knows it well and can bring you deeper into parts that you know are simmering with importance, either to illuminate those mysterious parts of the story, or to provide the dialogue that enables you to dig more deeply than you can when you’re entirely reliant on your own energy. Great books are more enjoyable when you have the chance to interact with people who know more about them than you do.

This may not be great news to students who see my name on their schedule at some point in August, but I’ve never looked at an English class as a place where the teacher has any responsibility to assign books that students will enjoy. My job is to help you see how relevant to your life can be the enduringly beautiful works of literature that brilliant people have written. The greater the challenge, the greater the satisfaction, and the more the book can teach you about yourself as you have experiences that bring this part or that part of a great novel to life for you. We’ll share about 150 hours of your entire life; you have all the other hours to read for enjoyment.

Because I am the type to continue banging my head into a wall until I make a dent, I will work on getting these clippings from my iPad to my laptop, at which point you’ll be able to take delight in all the passages that delighted me.


Next up: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, courtesy of Abigail Sawabini.

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