Thursday, August 5, 2010


My fiancé gets excited about classic lit. She’s a much heartier reader of old books than I am. She doesn’t approach them with a workout trudge either but dives at these thick trade paperbacks, reads them at work and when she falls asleep.

Lately we’ve been reading Moby Dick together. This started when I jokingly offered to read a chapter aloud and has carried on since. (Most of the chapters, of course, are pretty short, so it’s an easy regimen.) Last night’s was number 71, which may as well be called the someone-will-eventually-write-a-zombie-mashup chapter. Or the infection chapter. The chapter of ominous warning. The Pequod pulls up close to another ship, the Jeroboam, but as Ahab and palls lower a boat the other captain says no, no, it’s cool, hang back there, buddy, because we’re all infected. Well, no, maybe we’re not actually infected but there’s a plague rolling around on here.

And maybe there’s a crazy person onboard who thinks he’s an archangel, with control over the plague. And maybe he sort of accurately predicted the White Whale’s attack on one of my men. And now all my other men kind of think the crazy person really is an archangel. Really is Gabriel.

Ahab says to Starbuck, fetch me the mailbag. We’ve got some mail for these poor bastards. Starbuck brings the mailbag and roots out an envelope “dull, spotted, green [with] mould,” something that might have been carried by “Death himself.” As Ahab and Starby prepare to pass the letter, they realize it’s for the man so recently killed by the White Whale. Gabriel yells up that they ought to keep the letter, then, as they’re soon to meet him at the foundation of the ocean. Ahab gets a little hot about this and passes the letter over anyway, but the ship surges and Gabriel snags it, knifes it, and kicks it back over the waters. Then another surge carries the Jeroboam away entirely.

Anyway we both got excited about that chapter. It is syrupy with foreboding and the scene is tucked together so vividly that you can smell the rotting wood and wet paper. It comes, too, after a string of quick and light chapters that cover topics like the proper preparation of a whale steak and the anatomy of whale blubber.

I read this book a few years ago but was reminded of what makes it so vital. This is the kind of book, too, like a lot of old literature, that awes me. How did anyone write such lengthy and engaging prose with a pencil or pen, and without find/replace? I know, I know, people still do it, but I can barely handle editing handwriting that stretches beyond a page.


  1. Agreed about the awe, Tim. Next try Confidence Man: His Masquerade, an even more awe-full book (particularly in those ways you highlight in your last paragraph-- how indeed? the Dalkey edition catches some occasions where Melville might have found find/replace of use), yet its contemporaries judged it (along with pretty much everything else post-White-Jacket) simply awful. I loved it.

  2. Gabriel, thanks for the rec. I'll check it out.

  3. The critics also hated (still hate?) Pierre. I think I remember hearing that Melville did too. Of course, he was pretty bitter by that time. I sort of liked Pierre. I can be made to pout for the misfortunes of a guy who thinks everything will turn out okay for him, after all, even as he makes the worst plans ever for himself. But it is also kind of a Gothic fanfiction of Melville's life, so, it's hard to take very seriously.