Saturday, December 12, 2009

Blow me down -- I may owe Martha Connor an apology

I love to read. I don't read a lot compared to some of my more literary friends, or my wife, but I get the sense that it's a lot for general purpose 21st century America. Between all the Harry Potter and crazy food books and whatever else I stumble across, I try to read a classic every year or two. It helps me feel cultured and refined while I'm scratching my bits and grazing on old M&M's I find in the couch cushions.

The last one I read was The Count of Monte Cristo, which was really cheating, because even though it's like a thousand pages, with about as many characters, it's been one of my favorite books since I saw the Mr. Magoo version on television as a kid. It has perhaps the most skillfully constructed plot of anything I have ever read, making even A Prayer for Owen Meany seem simple by comparison. Plus, if you've ever felt like you wanted revenge on pretty much everyone you know, The Count of Monte Cristo is the book for you. Also, excellent sandwich.

This time I decided to take on the leviathan. That's right, I'm reading Moby Dick. It's not my first attempt at the Great White Novel. I tried it back in high school, but I crashed early against the waves of irrelevant exposition and pointless descriptions of items of furniture, road signs and the buttons on the clothes of transient characters. I don't think I made fifty pages, and like the story's protagonist, it's a result I cannot abide. Many of the classic books simply lost my interest, or weren't my style, but I have always felt defeated by Moby Dick. So I strapped on my peg leg and took another shot.

It has not exactly been smooth sailing. I wasn't sure I was going to make it through the pages and pages of random cetacean-related quotations that open the book, but I persevered*, and before I knew it I was paddling along through a quirky -- if somewhat dull -- story of budding man-love between a grumpy sailor and his heavily inked heathen boy toy. It wasn't exactly a thrilling read, but a bit like canoeing a sluggish river. You wish there were a following current to lessen the effort required, but at least the water is deep enough, and it's more or less downstream.

Then I got to Chapter 9, "The Sermon." This chapter was not only seven pages of some of the best prose I have read**, but if I had ever heard a sermon like this one in person, I might still go to church. Melville manages to gracefully blend the fire and brimstone of old time religion with Age of Reason thinking to make the most compelling case for religion that I can recall hearing. And while a little heavily allegorical in both setting and tone, it's a compelling read. A gem like "The Sermon" will make the effort required to get through rest of the book worth it for me. The chapter seems somewhat fitted into the story, in that it doesn't really advance the plot to any significant degree, and none of our continuing characters speak a word. I suspect it was something Melville knew was too good not to work in somewhere.

So I think I may owe my twelfth grade English teacher an apology, even though she was kind of a bitch to me most of the time. I think she thought she was pushing me to excellence, but she was really just pissing me off. Oops, this is probably not how the best apologies start, but she's not going to read this anyway. Okay, here goes. Miss Connor, I'm sorry you were a bitch I told you that Moby Dick was the most tedious piece of crap I have ever had the misfortune to attempt to read. That honor now reverts to Silas Marner.

I'm not apologizing to Melville. At least not yet. First off, he's dead. Second, the jury is still out on this book. So far we have ten percent brilliant writing balanced against ninety percent fishy-smelling tedium. Sort of like three weeks at a bed and breakfast in an old seaside village, watching someone inventory the whole town's possessions with their new video camera.

So now I'm back to the long search for the next sign of life. Melville just spent almost a page telling us that we can really only feel warm when a part of us is cold, while Ishmael shares pillow talk and wrestles with his new boyfriend***. Hopefully I will be able to endure. Who knows? If I get through Moby Dick, maybe I will take another shot at A Tale of Two Cities.
* I skimmed.
** At least old school eighteenth century type prose. I don't know that I would read Melville's blog if he had one.
*** Not that there's anything wrong with that.


  1. 1) Martha Conner WAS a bitch and she played favorites. I hate teachers who do that. Particularly when I'm not a favorite.
    2) Silas M. is a tedious piece of crap. End of story.
    3) Okay, I'm weird. I sort of liked Moby Dick. But I like Heart of Darkness, too.
    4) Ever read Anna Karenenia, War & Peace, and Rememberances of
    Things Past? All worth the occasional wading through......

  2. sadly, much of my exposure to classics came via Mr. Magoo. why is that wrong? they were pretty brilliant...

  3. I have to admit, I never read Moby Dick and after reading your blog, ehhh, not too interested in doing so. I've enjoyed the likes of Great Expectations and yes, even A Tale of Two Cities. Classics are unique critters, aren't they...

  4. Amy: I was a favorite of Martha's, and it didn't seem to matter. Tolstoy is on my list. I just have to wait until I can stand the depression.

    daisyfae: I think Mr. Magoo's classics and Schoolhouse Rock are the two best educational tools ever developed. I saw the Magoo collection on Amazon. I may have to order them.

    Aleta: It is strange to read them as an adult and realize not only how much the world has changed, but how much writing has changed. We just don't have the patience for descriptive writing anymore.