Slogging through Moby Dick

Originally published September 22, 2012.

It took me ten years and two tries, but I’ve finally done it. I have finally read Moby Dick. I don’t know why this was the one classic that I felt I could not miss, despite trying once and giving up after about 200 pages. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the Atlantic coast and as my mom says, “have salt water in my veins.” Or because I read Ahab’s Wife for book club and was intrigued enough to give the real deal a try. Or maybe it was the “Why Read Moby-Dick?” story I heard on NPR, or the quiet, impassioned discussion going on next to me at happy hour between two of my Barnes & Noble co-workers, one of whom was reading Moby Dick for the first time, the other who had written her honors thesis about it.

For whatever reason, I got a bee in my bonnet to read Moby Dick this summer. To decisively engage. To commit. And I have done it. Now, sipping a stiff drink in satisfaction and celebration, I feel like I’ve run a marathon. An eight week marathon of the mind – of dedication and of a stubborn commitment to a ridiculous endeavor. “Call me Ishmael” was a bang that made me jump, grinning, from the starting line. For 150 pages I was in it, and I was loving it. And then, as in any endurance race, the adrenaline and endorphins wore off as the start fell away behind me, and I realized how far away the finish was, and how maddeningly dull all that middle part was. For the next 350 pages, I suffered. I suffered through chapters on whale anatomy. I read five minutes each night before boring myself to sleep. I wondered, “Why I am doing this? I could be reading something engaging. Something easy or fun. Something not painful.” And I’d turn my light off and go to sleep.

But as I told my girlfriend, I was not going to pick up another book. I was not going to give up again. So I read magazines. Cleaned the house. Tried new cocktails. And read for five minutes at night before my eyes would go blurry with disinterest.

After 6 weeks of this, at about page 500, I hit the wall. For one thing, I never count pages.  Counting pages is like looking at the clock at work. If you’re counting pages, you’re reading the wrong book. So the fact that I was counting down the pages ’til I was done with this damn book was a major indicator that I was wasting precious hours of my life. I was skimming, for God’s sake. And I came really, really close to giving it up.

But out of stubbornness and spite, I pushed through. And about page 600, it started paying off. Moby Dick started getting good. Like, really good. After literally hundreds of pages of drudgery, of seemingly unnecessary tangents, of so much talk of the White Whale, and of Ahab’s madness, that I began to wonder if Moby Dick were even real, and if I were mad for my stupid single-mindedness for finishing this book, on page 692, I read this line:

There she blows! there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!

And I was covered in goose-bumps. Just writing that line gives me goose-bumps all over again. That line is part of the American collective consciousness. It is so well-known that everyone, and I mean everyone, recognizes it. And I was there. I earned that prize. Once I got there, I knew all of my hard work was worth it. I don’t know why, but getting there made me feel like I had accomplished something big. Along with Ahab, I was mad to finally find Moby Dick, and the search was finally over. All that hard work, all that suffering, all of that pursuit – it finally paid off. It’s Moby Dick! He is real! And he has finally made his magnificent appearance.

Maybe that’s why that line is so beloved – because everyone feels the same way when they get there. You are overcome with relief, this sense of “FINALLY! We’re at the point of it all!” And whether by accident or genius, Melville wove this masterpiece in such a way that by the time you get to that famed line, the story has become – dare I say it? – a page turner. After such an investment – those torturous filler chapters so seemingly pointless, the chasing of this elusive whale so maddening – I just could not put it down. I almost missed the kids’ bus because I couldn’t stop reading.

And when I turned the final page, and realized, “I have done it! I have read Moby Dick!” I was able to cross off a major “to-do” on my bucket list. I felt a peace in my soul. Ironically (or maybe not so ironically) the same peace Ahab might have felt when after losing a limb (and his mind) to Moby Dick, after a mad, pointless, hubris-filled chase of the white whale, he could die knowing he had finally faced his leviathan.

Andrea Reads America: Maryland

Andrea Reads America Book Map of Maryland
Andrea Reads America: Maryland

In our life before children, my husband and I lived in Maryland, in the D.C metro area. We lived in Tacoma Park and College Park, and we spent scores of weekends exploring the eastern shore, bicycling through Amish country, eating and drinking beers in Annapolis and Baltimore. I was hoping for literature that reflected our experiences of Maryland: forays into the city, hill country, sailing, the Chesapeake Bay. I wasn’t in the mood for Michener’s 880 page Chesapeake tome, which would likely take me years to finish (plus he wasn’t from Maryland and never lived in Maryland), so I settled for what I could find. I enjoyed the books I did read, but they did not reflect the Maryland I knew. Maybe one day I should write that book :-).

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Book: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave
Author: Frederick Douglass, born a slave in Maryland
Setting: 1830s Baltimore and rural Maryland
Category: Nonfiction, African-American Literature

I’ve read a lot of fiction about slavery, and have been shaken by those novels, but to read a nonfiction account by a former slave who taught himself to read and write, despite both the threat and reality of being whipped for it, is something else entirely.

Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye dried; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Douglass’s narrative, set in the mid 1800s where he was a slave in both rural Maryland and in the city of Baltimore, is an eloquent illumination of the daily life and sufferings of slaves, not only in dramatic scenes like his hiding in the woods and the use of women slaves for “breeders,” but in details like the scanty ration of clothing he was given, the absence of bedding so he had to sleep on the ground, and the lack of time to even sleep for how hard he was worked.

How a human could have the grit to endure all of that — the oppression, the savagery, the chains and whips at every turn — and rise up above it awes me. Yet Douglass did. He heard a white man prohibit his wife from teaching slaves to read because education would cause them to overthrow their masters, and when Douglass heard that, he knew his route to freedom: literacy.

He sought education from children in the streets of Baltimore since he was forbidden the written word at home. Over years he taught himself to read and write. And the white man was right: Douglass’s intellect, though broken at some points by the nearly insurmountable obstacles of oppression, persisted. His mind found him a path to freedom. And then he taught others.

[My fellow slaves’] minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race.

The human will is astonishing. It will not be stopped.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Novel: A Spool of Blue Thread
Author: Anne Tyler, lives in Maryland
Setting: 1930s-2016 Baltimore
Category: Contemporary fiction

Set in Baltimore, Maryland from the 1930s to current time, A Spool of Blue Thread tells the story of the Whitshank family –their mysterious beginnings with J.R. (Junior) and his marriage to Linne Mae, who was 13 to his 26 the first time they slept together — and the carefully constructed house that Junior built in an upper class neighborhood while he and Linne Mae lived in the working class Hampden neighborhood.

I find human beings and their interactions to be fascinating, especially at the family and class level. I devour the details that go on inside the walls of a household, and A Spool of Blue Thread captures the normalness of messiness beautifully, demonstrating that every family is dysfunctional. As Tyler writes of Abby, the daughter-in-law of Junior and Linnie Mae:

She couldn’t bear to think that their family was just another muddled, discontented, ordinary family.

Tyler crafts the characters masterfully — each is recognizable, with their traits and quirks, in people we know — and constructs their architecture as carefully, and with as much attention to quality, as J.R. constructed the house on Bouton road: the house in which all of their stories unfold. She tells a story of an ordinary family in a way that kept me turning the pages.

Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer winner, and this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I think I have found a new author to love.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott FitzgeraldShort story: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived in Baltimore
Setting: 1860 – 1930s Baltimore
Category: Short stories, Literary Fiction

We all know the story of Benjamin Button now, right? The story about the man who was born old and aged backwards? What I didn’t know about this story is that it was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that it was set in Baltimore, Maryland. What I also didn’t know was that Fitzgerald lived in Baltimore for several years after Paris and New York, and that Maryland was where his wife Zelda was hospitalized in the 1930s for mental illness, and where Fitzgerald was hospitalized 9 times for alcoholism.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is very short, barely 40 pages, and is both strange and comical. Benjamin is born in 1860 as a 70 year-old man, and what struck me about this short story, since I’m reading for setting, is how unlike the Baltimore of today is the Baltimore in this book. Granted, I’ve only been exposed to certain parts of Baltimore: the grittier parts from Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (the book that spawned the HBO series The Wire) and the modern parts I’ve visited down by the Inner Harbor.

But in this book, Fitzgerald refers to ante bellum Baltimore, debutantes, and Baltimore society, reminding me that Maryland, and Baltimore, were part of the South. I don’t know why I think of Maryland as being both North and South, especially after reading Frederick Douglass’s book — perhaps because it is the northernmost east coast state south of the Mason Dixon line — but thinking of Baltimore with white, ante bellum Southern “society” was a place my mind had never gone before. It makes sense Fitzgerald would be the one to introduce it.

The story itself was only okay. It was a quick read that Fitzgerald thought was very funny, but it had deeper implications about age and how we interact with it. The movie was quite a departure from the original text, especially with regards to Benjamin’s romantic interest, which remained true throughout the film, and faded with his youth and his wife’s aging in the book (see above about deeper implications about age and how we interact with it). The book felt truer to what the reality would be in such a bizarre circumstance, while the movie was much sweeter.

For Further Reading in Maryland

Recommended books I’ve not yet read:
– Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
– The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares
– Red Kayak, Priscilla Cummings
– Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.