When I was a kid, my cousin would tell this story about my Uncle Doug. My Uncle Doug worked for the City’s tax department. He started right out of high school as a clerk, no university, and just worked his way up, as you did in those days, taking night courses here and there, until he eventually became the head of the department. As a result, he didn’t make a lot of spare time for reading. My Uncle liked to keep on top of world events; if he were alive today, I’m sure he would be fascinated with Twitter, even if he wouldn’t be exactly sure how it worked. The rare time he DID devote to reading, he mostly spent with the newspaper. Sometimes he wouldn’t even have time for that, so he stockpiled the newspapers in the basement, much to my aunt’s chagrin. It would often become a fire hazard and a source of conflict for the two of them.
Anyway, the point of this opening story is that my cousin remembers their annual family camping trip. It was the one time of the year my Uncle was away from work and the world in general, and it was the one time of the year when he thought he could read for pleasure. My cousin remembers every summer her dad, (my uncle) would lug this old copy of Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” out of the basement and toss it into the camper. The running joke with my family (and my uncle too) was that there was so much work to do on a camping trip (my uncle had three kids), that for my cousin’s entire childhood, she remembers her dad being around page 6 of “The Winds of War” for ever. She’d joke with him, “so, still working on that Herman Wouk, eh?” and my uncle would just smile and say, “one of these days…”
Well, I think “Moby Dick” was my “Winds of War”.
It’s undeniably one of the “great works of western literature” right? I mean, if you were to stop someone on the street and ask him or her to list the “great books”, you’d probably get “War and Peace”, “Gone with the Wind”, possibly some Dickens, some Austen, some Shakespeare and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Moby Dick” came up too.
Over the years, I sort of attempted to read it, but like Uncle Doug, I never got past page six. (I never probably even got past page 2, to be honest. To be really honest, I kind of faded after reading the words “Call me Ishmael”).
To give you an idea of my lax commitment to this book, I withdrew an older copy of it from the library a couple of years ago and ordered a nice new one. That old copy has sat on the edge of my desk at work for two years. It soon became covered with papers and a binder or two, but I could still see the corner of it every time I sat down to do some work. It was there, just on the periphery of my consciousness.
I guess I just never had the motivation to give it a proper go. It was only a couple of months ago that the stars were in alignment. I follow this author, Joe Hill, on Twitter. In addition to being a fellow geek and talented writer, he is also a strong supporter of libraries and independent bookstores, so what’s not to like? (Also, he’s Stephen King’s son, so there.) With Neil Gaiman (another ‘hero writer/tweeter” of mine), they both started the “All Hallow’s Read” initiative that people should give each other a scary book (in addition to candy) on Halloween. Another initiative started by Joe Hill himself was the Big Read Along or #bigreadalong for you tweeties.
It’s a pretty simple idea. Joe Hill chooses a book and reads it, and comments on his progress using the hashtag. If you want to join in and read along, why not go for it?
He started January 1st, and on January 2nd when I returned to work after Christmas vacation, I moved a couple of binders and pushed few sheets out of way to get a hold of my “dick”. (Okay, I know dick jokes are just WAY TOO EASY and I am really really going to try to get through this blog-post without making any more. It’s just low hanging fruit……damn, okay starting now.)
So I started with “Call me Ishmael” and just kept going. I was going to do it this time, finally! My initial impressions were that it was more readable than I thought it would be, and I was surprised by the large amount of humour Melville scattered throughout. I was finally getting to know these infamous characters like the cannibalistic harpooner Queequeg, the first mate Starbuck (for whom the international coffee chain was named after, fun fact!) and the iconic Captain Ahab. And of course the ship itself, The Pequod, which became as much a part of the story as Cousteau’s Calypso, Quint’s Orca, or Zissou’s Belafonte. In fact, when Ishmael and Queequeg first see the Pequod docked in the Nantucket harbour, I couldn’t help but think about that scene in Star Wars where Luke, Ben and the droids see the Millennium Falcon for the first time docked at Mos Eisley. The parallels are there if you look for them, friend.
Reading the book along with a group of anonymous “big read alongers” was great fun. I would sometimes quote the odd line from the story: something that caught my eye or made me chuckle, and Joe Hill would chime in from time to time with resources he found online, or movie clips that would tie in, or anything that would enhance the reading experience. I didn’t feel so alone. At one point I tweeted that I was at a certain page number and was floundering a bit, when a fellow read alonger, @VoodoDarling tweeted encouragement to me, saying that it gets easier, as if she were my literary sobriety partner or something.
As I made my way through the book, I began to see Moby Dick references everywhere in my life. There was some weird futuristic version of it on Netflix (of which I have not yet watched), the Gregory Peck version was on TCM and I PVR’d it to watch as a reward when I was done reading. Even walking through a yarn barn in the U.S. with my wife, I came across an aisle of models, and one of them was simply titled “New Bedford Whaler -1835”, but we all know it was The Pequod, right? At least it has the right era and geographical provenance.
Speaking of rewards, I found myself setting up little goals. For example every time I read a hundred pages, I allowed myself a little break and read something fun: the new Michael Connelly mystery, a George Saunders short story, something to break the monotony.
I realize that referring to the reading experience of Moby Dick as “monotonous” doesn’t really sound like a compliment, but I don’t mean it as an insult either. It just seems like the way that Melville wrote the book mirrors the feeling of being on a ship at sea for months, if not years, just like the ill-fated crew of the Pequod. There were entire chapters that did nothing to advance the narrative: long digressions on the nature and history of whaling, detailed biological and anatomical descriptions and comparisons of the different kinds of whales, and long passages describing every aspect of life on a whaling ship, including a lot of talk about “sperm” (not that kind, perv.) I didn’t skip over any of them, even when my eyes glazed over and I found myself not understanding what I had just read. I was tempted at some points along the way to pick up some crutches: a graphic novel version, an abridged version, a retelling for children, but I never did. I felt like I had to handle this dick on my own. (sorry). One book that DID catch my eye was “Moby Dick in Pictures” where some guy went through and did a full colour illustration for every page of Moby Dick. The book is out in paperback and it is less than $30 on Amazon (free shipping!) so maybe, just maybe I’ll ask for this for my birthday or something. I may not ever want to reread Moby Dick again, but “revisiting” it like this down the road might be fun. The version I read had illustrations, but not on every page and they were only black and white.
The only “cheating” that I allowed myself was that I found a PDF of the book online and I downloaded it to my work computer, so that if I had some time on my lunch break, or before and after work, I could easily call it up and knock off a few chapters without even leaving my desk. I took great pleasure in advancing my bookmark in my physical book after one of these “office sessions”.
I told a number of people at work that I was reading “Moby Dick”. I’m not sure why I did this. Maybe to gain a bit of nerd “street cred” that I was finally conquering this daunting obstacle, and maybe to have people hold me accountable, to make sure I actually finished it. It wasn’t uncommon over the last two months to have co-workers ask me how I was doing and where I was at in the book. It felt like they were all pulling for me to finish.
And then, suddenly, on February 2nd, Groundhog Day of all days. This happened:
Our fearless leader was finished! I was happy for him, but was saddened that we weren’t on the same journey any more. He made it to the watery depths first. No more tweets or links. It actually hardened my resolve (don’t say anything) and spurned me on to get to that same happy place of completion.
With less than a hundred pages to go, I inadvertently read a major spoiler about the end of the story. (That is, if you can have a major spoiler for a book that’s been around for over 150 years!)
This is how it went down: I was singing in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” last weekend, and I thought that maybe it would help if I actually looked up the story of Elijah from the bible. So I found the Elijah wikipedia entry and started to read. At the bottom of the article there was a “Elijah in arts and literature” section or something and I clicked on that and it talked about a character in Moby Dick that is referred to as “the prophet” and is actually supposed to be a reincarnation of Elijah. Well I remember that character. Before the Pequod sets sail, the prophet is predicting all kinds of general calamity and misfortune on the voyage but nothing specific. The article goes on to say that in the movie version (not the book) the character correctly predicts that the (SPOILER) entire crew DIES at the end of the story at the hands of the whale. (or I guess the “fins” of the whale, as it very much were), except for the narrator, Ishmael.
I mean, I think I sort of knew that was going to happen, but at the same time, I was trying to put everything out of my mind and approach this book without any prejudice, and after nearly 700 pages of an 800 page book (with illustrations), I felt punched in the gut. Even Starbuck? Even Queequeg? I thought to myself.
I thought I’d need more time, but the last 100 pages or so really soars by fast, and late last night, after everyone else was asleep, I witnessed the final battle between the crew of The Pequod and Moby Dick, the dreaded giant Sperm Whale.
Some final thoughts: The book is a total hot mess, but I do feel like I’m basking in a certain sense of “smug self-satisfaction” for sticking with it. There are wonderful small moments, beautifully rendered, and some really long stretches that were a slog to get through or even make through. By the end, I’ll admit, I was reading to merely get through it, and I may have missed some of the finer points. (Actually, I missed some of the larger points too. For example, in the chapter, “Queequeg in his coffin” I actually thought Queequeg died. I guess I missed the part where he got better, so I was really stunned when Queequeg appears during the final battle with the whale. I had to turn to a summary site to get sorted). If I had to choose my favourite chapter, it would be chapter 15, “Chowder”. Before Ishmael and Queequeg sign up for The Pequod, they are spending their first night in Nantucket and are told to go to the “Try Pots Inn” for supper. It appears that Ishmael and Queequeg have never heard of chowder, because when they asked whether they want “Clam or Cod”, Ishmael imagines one sad little cold clam on a plate for supper. This is what happens when the chowder comes out:
“However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to
belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when
that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully
explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of
small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with
pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes;
the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with
pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty
voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing
food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent,
we despatched it with great expedition…”
So taken by the chowder, Ishmael sneaks over to the kitchen door and shouts “Cod!” and sure enough, another couple of bowls come out, this time with the Cod chowder. Who doesn’t like reading about a good chowder?
If I ever make the time, I would love to through and abridge the novel to a reasonable length. Like I said, my edition clocked in at 822 pages with illustrations. I could probably get that down to about 300 pages and it would be a better book, but it ultimately wouldn’t be Moby Dick, would it? It would require a bit of “Dick reduction surgery” (apologies).
I loved that Joe Hill organized this casual book club thingy and I’m sort of hoping it becomes an annual event. Every January 1st start off with a book that we’ve been meaning to read, and then just READ it, knowing that you are not alone.
As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think about how Moby Dick must have influenced so many subsequent works of art, including two of my favourite movies, “Jaws” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”. I still think those two movies would make a kick ass double feature, and THIS SUMMER I’M GOING TO DO IT. Who’s in?
Back to my Uncle, I don’t think he ever did make it past page six of “The Winds of War”, come to think of it. (We can switch from dick jokes to fart jokes, right?) Maybe we can make that next year’s #bigreadalong? Whadaya say, Joe?