I just learned from those nifty guys and gals at Google that today is the 161st anniversary of Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This is very exciting; I love that book.
I have a long and tormented relationship with this tome. I was first exposed to it in 10th grade English, when we had to read the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale,” which I did not read because the font was tiny, as was my patience. I then purchased it in Spring of 2010 for a class, “Symbolus to Symbolisme,” for which I received a grade of N/C. The reason for this was that I wrote the only paper on Moby Dick, a 22 page essay that I banged out frenetically in seven hours the day it was due between trips to the bathroom and more trips to the bathroom. I then got an email from the professor saying that she had specifically stated we could write the paper on any book in the entire universe except Moby Dick, and that I would have to rewrite the paper. I’m sure it was more specific than that, but I decided that I couldn’t be bothered and moved to Mexico.
[I found the paper I wrote in my email. Here’s the first paragraph: “When I think about Schlegel, I’m always drowning in thoughts of synesthesia. A blue scream echoes across an open chasm and we see gyrating slivers of golden glass, a tall, dark, handsome seven or a silent, meek, green six. A gentle “L” sound tastes like Lucky Charms. Schlegel said that imagination exists to apprehend that which the five senses cannot. Each sense has the capacity to perceive that which it is designed to apprehend, but what happens when there is something that we cannot sense at that moment? There are things we cannot know, but that does not necessarily mean they do not exist.” This is humiliating. I’d rather have posted naked pictures. In retrospect, it’s probably better I left the country.]
I brought the cursed book along, figuring if it made me drop out of grad school, I should at least read it. I carried that fucking book from JFK to Puebla, back to New York for Christmas, to Puerto Escondido, to Belize, to the Yucatan Peninsula, and to Mexico City, where it sat on my bookshelf with a lovely view of the Angel de independencia. After I quit my teaching job, I started to read it half-heartedly. I kept getting stuck on the chapters about the different ways in which different painters had painted whales, and on the obtainance of oil. The book is nothing if not detailed. I think I read page 332 about seventeen times.
When I went on my walkabout to Oaxaca and Guatemala, I decided enough was enough. The best part about traveling alone is you can choose to isolate yourself for long periods of time, and with no obligations do whatever you want. So I finally read Moby Dick in San Pedro La Laguna; it was so tattered by that point that it broke into sections and I carried them around with me, reading on the dock while drinking Gallo, reading on the roof of the hotel while trying to tan, using it as a hangover remedy after demented nights.
“I try all things, I achieve what I can.”
I finally finished in my little twin bed, and felt that bittersweet anger that happens when you’re done with an incredible book. After all, it’s the ultimate travelogue. It’s about people on an impossible journey that becomes possible, about the type of people who simply can’t be ashore too long. It’s about finding new places, and the fatigue at realizing all places are, in essence the same, yet you’d rather learn that firsthand than be told second. It’s about learning to get past snap judgements and first impressions, about liking people for who they truly are.
It’s also a testament to dedication and devotion in writing. Every single aspect of ceytology (study of whales) is dissected, divulged, and detailed so that even a reader who’s never seen an ocean can be on the Pequod, throwing spears off a small boat into the neck of a right whale, picturing the tiny, off-side eye. Interestingly, Melville writes: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” Granted, whales are indeed a “mighty” subject, but are they any different than a flea in terms of general human interest? Be they whales or fleas, you CAN write a mighty book about them, so long as you yank the heartstrings and mindstrings of the reader.
Yes, reading an 133 chapter book is an endeavor, but it’s a worthwhile one. And while it’s sad to finish a book you loved, the best part about literature is you can pick it up and read it again. And again. Or, if you’re lazy, you can just read some of these quotes.
“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
“…for all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal…”
“In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.”
“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”
“See how elastic our prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them.”
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.”