Notes From The Small Pond: Before You Die
August 19, 2022
Before You Die you should read “Moby Dick.”
A lot of us from varying generations will have had this title as Required Reading in high school or as an undergrad student. I remember trying to plow through it in ninth grade, as the assignment of Ms. Swanson after sprinting through “Huck Finn” and finding it infinitely less interesting than what 5-years-older Jeff Kapinski was buying my eventual wife and Ever-Ever Girlfriend for a birthday present.
“I guess it’d be okay if you bought me skis and a jacket ….”
Same with “War and Peace,” “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Crime and Punishment.”
I just wasn’t smart or mature enough, or either, to Get It, even though I Got It with Homer and Dante and Virgil and Shakespeare and, of course, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner and Nelson Algren and Dorothy Parker, et al.
But reading “Moby Dick” was like … fishing and landing a whale. For Herman Melville, that was part of the deal. Or all of the deal.
If you couldn’t read him, he didn’t read you. He couldn’t care less. Artistically. Commercially, he cared a lot. He needed a win in 1852.
When “Moby Dick” showed up on bookstore shelves it didn’t resonate. It took about a hundred years for his work to be recognized as legit. As a “Classic.” A Must Read.
I share a wavelength.
A lot of the misgivings and lukewarm-ness and yawn-ish-ness had to do with the fact that Starbuck was not American/Western European, i.e. “cannibal” the narrator Ishmael’s bedmate and confidant and lifesaver and not-sexual-partner (even though they warmed legs against each other, who hasn’t?) was illustrated and constructed as an equal-to/better-than foil to the narrator and the Demi-Star-of-the-Show, Captain Ahab and Moby Dick Himself.
Awesomely, Moby Dick himself doesn’t show up until the last quarter of the book. But by then, you’ll know more about sperm whales and whaling than most of us will ever need to know but which all of us will have dreams about until we stop dreaming.
The language is another thing. It may be the main thing. Melville was not writing in 21st- or 20th-century colloquial English.
A book takes a long time to write.
Moby Dick was published in 1852. He started writing it 15 years earlier.
Or more. A tree’s leaves are born beneath the ground.
If anyone considering or not considering reading Moby Dick has reservations about how long it may take to “get into it” or “get it,” take a deep breath. Settle in.
Commit to spend some time with yourself. Imagine Melville, doing the same. Starved and digging and doing the only thing he knew how to do: plunge himself onto a whale ship in the late 1830s, and figure it out.
We’ve all got our whale ships. And we’ve all got and are, our ourselves, Moby Dicks.
Oh … and he could write
Cloquet’s Parnell Thill is a previous “Columnist of the Year” winner in Minnesota and author of “Killing the Devil and Other Excellent Tricks,” available online. His opinions are his own.. Contact him c/o [email protected]