Monday, August 19, 2013

Summer Reading

I was sitting in my wife's grandmother's house in Indiana wondering what to read next. I had just finished the amazing Catch 22 by Joseph Heller but I was already looking forward to the next read. I had read Catch 22 in an actual book format but now that I was out of town I didn't have any other books with me. But I had my Kindle. On my trusty Kindle were dozens of classic works that I had downloaded for free but never read. These classic titles are free because their copyright has expired and many of them were on my elusive list of "books I must read before I die in order to be considered well read."
Moby Dick by Herman Melville has been on that list for some time. Believe it or not I never had gotten around to reading The White Whale. Somehow it never showed up on any of my high school or college syllabi. But it was on my Kindle so I gave it a go. After all, Moby Dick is considered one of the great American novels.
Immediately I was entranced. The narrative sparked my interest from the first page. The writing was poetical and ethereal. The storyline was hypnotizing, a real page turner (or Kindle click). The metaphors were evident but not simplistic. The allegory powerful but not cliché. The descriptions of Ahab's monomania are some of the best detailing of neurotic obsession ever put on paper.
I was forgiving the first time Melville left the linear narrative in order to go on a lengthy discussion on the different species of whales. I was skeptical when he left the narrative again for a long tangent about how different tools, sails and ropes are used on a whaling vessel. I became weary when Melville elaborated on the different paintings of whales and how these paintings are almost completely inaccurate. I was chagrined when I realized that the narrative was taking less and less space and the book was becoming more of a historical treatise about 19th century whaling. Soon I got bogged down.
I read through these tangents not wanting to miss something essential. I didn't want to miss an important metaphorical literary device. Soon I found myself skimming through these tedious passages. They ruined the book in my opinion. These tangents take away from a fantastic narrative and don't really add much heft to the reader's understanding of the context. Most of these meanderings could have been included in the narrative and severely edited without harming any part of the literary experience.
For example, Patrick O'Brian writes about 18th/19th century British naval experiences and never explains what a jib or mizzen sail is. You learn to either figure out the terminology or bypass them for the narrative. O'Brian's narratives are exceptional and never shut down in order to explain what a monkey rope is used for.
I also became weary of the pervasive racism in Moby Dick. I ignored it at first as a cultural relic and an unfortunate world view of the time period. In fact, to leave the racism out may have made the book less realistic. But it kept pounding away at me. Pounding away. And it wasn't written as any type of indictment of racism. It was simply the author's and the character's world view. As historically accurate as it may have been I just got tired of hearing other races so utterly demeaned all the time.
I realize that the modern reader should not necessarily force their modern conceptions of the world on to novels centuries old. But I find whaling barbaric and cruel as most 21st century readers probably do. Moby Dick is not merely a description of events on a whaling ship or a story about a particular journey while whaling. This book is a full on propaganda tract about the wonders and greatness of the whaling enterprise.
Maybe I missed Melville's tone. Maybe I missed the subtext. Maybe he was damning whaling and racism the entire time. Taking an author at face value can be dangerous. But I'm not so sure that I have missed Melville's point. I understand the story of monomania. But the constant going down unnecessary rabbit holes, glorification of a disgusting enterprise and the pervasive racism really took it's toll on my experience.