Sunday, January 10, 2010

Moby-Dick and other Big Books

Yesterday I was traveling all day, flying from Fort Lauderdale to Chicago to Los Angeles, then taking a shuttle from L.A. to Anaheim. The best part of being in and out of airports all day is that you have a whole lot of time to read...and nothing much to distract you. So I got the chance to sit still and finish reading Moby-Dick, (one of) the biggest fish in the sea of American literature.

This was a great book. Great Book, too. I think I see what all the fuss is about. It's one of those books that has furnished characters and ideas that are known to almost the entire reading public of our language. Captain Ahab, one-legged, crazed, and obsessed with revenge. The titanic White Whale, lordly and ancient, an unconquerable foe. Most people familiar with these characters know them because they are archetypal figures that are regularly alluded to, even in common speech. But, as always, there really is nothing like reading the work itself. The language is rich, the sentences long and grammatically elaborate. In fact, the whole book is rather wordy. But the metaphors, the images, and the (exhaustive) descriptions are dazzling. And every time you get bogged down by a dull passage or exchange, you can be sure a striking, even haunting, passage is forthcoming to rouse you and irradiate what seemed so plain a moment before.

[After a few pages of description of the flukes of a sperm whale]
The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. In an extensive herd, so remarkable, occasionally, are these mystic gestures, that I have heard hunters who have declared them akin to Free-Mason signs and symbols; that the whale, indeed, by these methods intelligently conversed with the world. Nor are there wanting other motions of the whale in his general body, full of strangeness, and unaccountable to his most experienced assailant. Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face. (350-1)

Just beautiful. The allusion to Moses on Sinai, the comparison of the whale with God, and the way the narrator complicates that juxtaposition by saying the whale has no face -- just great stuff.

Also, the attitude of the narrator--and Melville himself--towards whales and whaling is fascinating. He has a profound reverence for the creature. He finds it in many ways superior to mankind, more like a god. He expresses pity for individual whales that are killed, and he realizes that whaling is an industry of profit. Yet he defends the practice, denies that it threatens whales as a species, and certainly does not spare us the gory details of the trade. Even in those gory details (for example, describing how blubber is stripped from the body of a dead whale), however, he never stops venerating the beast.

I don't have an overarching point to make about the book. I really, really liked it. The more powerful bits of symbolism weren't hiding between the lines or buried where only a literary scholar could dig them up: Melville is up front with his symbols and metaphors, and he explores them openly and at length. Case in point, a full eight pages are dedicated to discussing the sundry symbolic interpretations of the whiteness of the whale. I liked this candor. When symbols are too subtle to make an impression on the reader, that indicates that either the reader is too ignorant or the author too pretentious.

On a related note, I was having a discussion with Craig after exhorting him to read The Brothers Karamazov, and I articulated an idea I thought was worth writing down (not because of its profundity, but because it helped me understand my reading own proclivities). Why do I like to read big books that take forever to finish? Why begin a 600- or 900-page book when I could read three or four 200-page books in the same time?

Well, I think what I really enjoy--other than feeling like a badass for having read a big book--is how it becomes a sort of ritual. When you have a long, slow-moving book that takes you weeks to read, you get accustomed to the idea of chipping away at it steadily during your downtime. Kind of like watching a television series. I have found that if I am doing something stressful or irritating, it's a cozy thought to think about wrapping up, going home, and continuing on in the story. You get a long time to think it over and chew the cud. It's just a different experience from powering through books, especially shorter books.