If the most common end of New Year’s resolutions is that they are broken, then perhaps I’ve set myself up for an easy fail: I’m giving Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) a genuine try.
Notice that I didn’t say “old college try,” a term usually associated with failure. We could fill a big state with students who gave Moby-Dick the old college try before throwing in the towel. I would be one of them.
But something about the book tells me that it’s now worth the effort. I’m familiar enough with the story to understand why it speaks more to adults who have been around the block than to young students who have it assigned to them in a course.
My interest has been piqued by Nathaniel Philbrick‘s Why Read Moby-Dick (2011). Philbrick, a terrific popular historian, calls Moby-Dick the “American Bible.” As he points out, Melville was writing in the years preceding America’s Civil War (1861-65), when the nation was forging its identity and grappling with conflicts that would soon escalate. A lot of that place and time is built into Moby-Dick.
Also, I’m in search of more books that will stick with me beyond the time I spent reading them.
Now, I’m far from being a reading snob — quite the opposite. In fact, I think there are many popular fiction writers today who deliver entertaining books with staying power. Stephen King’s great stories are a prime example. One of the telltale signs of their depth is how I can start reading or re-reading one of King’s books, find myself unable to get back to it for a week or so, and then pretty much pick up where I left off. There’s an emotional resonance to the characters and storyline.
However, I also could assemble a long list of mystery, thriller, and espionage books that were enjoyable in the moment, but didn’t leave a lasting impression in terms of plot, personages, or atmospherics. I simply galloped my way through them.
I finished the opening chapter of Moby-Dick and already know that it won’t be a cover-to-cover read. Others have written about carrying the book around for months before they finally completed it. I’m giving it six.
But that first chapter already yielded some remarkable images, including those of 19th century Manhattanites crowding along the waterfront, gazing out toward the sea with fascination. I couldn’t help but think of Bartleby, the unhappy law firm clerk featured in another noteworthy (and much shorter) Melville story (Bartleby, the Scrivener, 1853), wondering if he is among them, drinking in the view before heading back to his soul sapping job.
Hmm…if I’m already mixing and matching characters from Melville’s stories, then maybe it’s a sign that I should stick with it.