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.

Hard life, simple life

I love the Little House on the Prairie books. I remember reading them as a child and thinking how basic life was for Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura: a stick of candy and an orange in the Christmas stocking was a thing to get excited about, to be giddy about. They got candy and oranges once per year. As a child, I had access to candy and oranges every day. I liked the thought of appreciating such a simple thing.

In our house, we currently have at least 13 large glass windows and walls that lets in no drafts. We have four kinds of sugar (white, brown, powdered, turbinado) and at least four types of flour (white, wheat, corn, semolina). We keep all of these on hand at all times, and when we’re almost out, we make a quick run to the market to replace them. We also have bread, bagels, 2 types of breakfast cereal, quick oats, instant oatmeal, 4 boxes of pasta, frozen waffles, and at least 3 types of crackers, including cheddar Goldfish. And that’s just a sampling of the flour-based products in our cupboard.

In Little House on the Prairie, though, when the family moves from the big woods of Wisconsin to the unsettled grasslands of Kansas, they eat corn meal and whatever game Pa hunts. They have no milk, cheese, sugar, flour, Pop Tarts, bread, eggs, cereal, waffles, pasta, cheddar Goldfish crackers. None of that. They have none of it. And they have no way to get it. They live in a wagon. They build a cabin out of logs from trees they cut by the stream they settle near. They cut holes in the walls for windows. Holes. As in, open gaps. No glass.

For almost a year they did not visit a store. If they wanted sweetener, Pa found a bee hive. One of my favorite scenes, aside from the passages about the prairie grasses as far as the eye could see, was when Pa returned from the four-day journey to the store and presented his family with a small paper sack.

Ma opened it and Mary and Laura looked at the sparkling whiteness of that beautiful sugar, and they each had a taste of it from a spoon. Then Ma tied it carefully up. They would have white sugar when company came.

What appeals to me about these books is the specialness of the very simple things that are so easy in my life: sugar, flour, “eight small squares of window glass.” I am numb to the sparkling beauty of the sugar in our cupboard. I don’t have to work that hard for it, and so I don’t notice it. I’d like to appreciate it more.

Writing helps with appreciating things. It makes me notice them, makes me roll them around through my senses. Reading does the same thing.

Pioneer books are among my favorites. Little House on the Prairie. The Snow Child. O Pioneers! Pioneer living is hard, endless work. Food, shelter, the basics necessities for life — all are hard won. Nothing is easy. Very little is bought in a store. Almos everything is made by hand.

I know I romanticize the life, the simplicity of it. I would probably hate it. I’d be tired all the time. But the closeness to the earth appeals to me. The minimalism. The gratitude.

Beware the hype

More than two years ago, I first learned of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, set in Iowa, and heard people rave about it. “One of the best books I ever read!” “OMG you have to read it.” “You’re going to LOVE it!”

Gilead by Marilynne RobinsonWhen I started my project, to read 3 books set in each US state, I thought, Oh goodie! I can read this one when I get to Iowa. When I hit the “I” states — Idaho, Illionois, Indiana — I started getting excited. I was almost there.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished my final Indiana read. The moment I closed the book, I picked up my Nook and purchased Gilead.

I started reading. I puzzled. I kept reading.

I waited for the goodness. I waited for the Iowa.

For me, they never came. The narrative — letters from an aged, ill pastor to his small son — did not engage me. The spiritual questions did not interest me. There were a couple of lovely passages, like this one, but overall, it was a huge letdown.

Often, a hyped book works out for me. The Goldfinch for example, or The Woman Upstairs. I loved those. I devoured them. They were massively exclaimed over: I expected 5 star reads from those, and they delivered. With this one, though, I expected 5 stars and ended up with 2. Maybe I would have given it 3 had I had no expectations.

The good news is that Iowa presented me with four books I really wanted to read, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to pick only three. Gilead eliminated itself and made that choice for me.

A Thousand Acres by Jane SmileyNow I’m onto the next Iowa book I was excited about. I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm so as to not fall into the same trap as with poor Gilead. It was on a pedestal and had a long way to fall.

My excitement this time is based on something much more superficial, though. It’s not based on the hype of professional readers, book bloggers, or literary critics. It is based solely on the cover: it has a hay bale on it!