November 30, 2006
Moby-Dick, Chapters 55-57
Chapters read: lv. Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales, lvi. Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes., lvii. Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars
Page reached: 265 of 522 (50.77%)
Status Report: Aside from their position atop the novel's continental divide, there's nothing notable about these three chapters.
November 29, 2006
Moby-Dick, Chapters 51-54
Speaking of Town-Ho's ... (I ask you: what other blog can gracefully segue from Britney's hoohoo to Moby-Dick?)
Page reached: 254 of 522 (48.66%)
Status Report: Okay, now Melville is just taunting me.
In my last report, I said that I might someday cobble together an abridged version of this book. It turns out that Melville has beat me to the punch. Chapter 54: The Town-Ho's Story is essentially a short story about another ship's encounter with Moby-Dick. While long by the standard of most other chapters (it is twenty pages in length), it is considerably briefer than the 522 page account of the Pequod, and the author's subtext appears to be: "Look at me! I can write tight, concise prose! When I feel like it! Which is never!"
It's also entirely self-contained. So if reading Moby-Dick in its entirely doesn't appeal to you, but you are curious to know what the book is like, you could read this chapter over a glass of wine or two and come away feeling like you've done "the Melville thing."
Words looked up:
November 24, 2006
Moby-Dick, Chapters 45-50
Page reached: 224 of 522 (42.92%)
Status Report: I'll say this much for Melville: he's done a good job of compartmentalizing this novel, segregating "story" and "info-dump" into distinct chapters. Ishmael doesn't break away in the middle of the action to spend eight and a half pages explaining why white is the scariest of all colors; oh no, that bit of pontification goes into a chapter all its own.
After a while, you get so you can intuit which category of chapter you are about to read based on the first paragraph alone. Here, for instance, is the opening of one chapter:
It was a cloudy, sultry afternoon; the seamen were lazily lounging about the decks, or vacantly gazing over into the lead-coloured waters. Queequeg and I were mildly employed weaving what is called a sword-mat, for an additional lashing to our boat. So still and subdued and yet somehow preluding was all the scene, and such an incantation of reverie lurked in the air, that each silent sailor seemed resolved into his own invisible self...And here's another:
So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affair...Can you guess which is going to be The Boring One?
There have been half a dozen motion pictures based on Moby-Dick. When I started the book, I wondered how anyone could put this rambling narrative on film. Now I know how they do it: they shoot the entire thing, assemble the three hours of story into the theatrical release, and cobble the remainder of the footage together into a four-hour, two-part "Whales: Leviathans of the Sea" special for the Discovery Channel.
In fact, when I'm done with this, I may publish a list of the "story chapters" only, allowing y'all to read an abbreviated version of the novel (not unlike my guides on how to Fast-Forward Through The Star Wars Prequels. It's nice that Melville made such a thing possible, by courteously keeping the exciting parts and the dull parts of Moby-Dick separate, thereby creating the McDLT of American literature.
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November 23, 2006
Moby-Dick, Chapters 41-44
Page reached: 195 of 522 (37.36%)
Status Report: One nice thing about this book: even if you put it down for a few days, you don't have any trouble remember where you left off. "Oh that's right. They're on a boat. And nothing. Is. Happening."
Fortunately, considerably less nothing happened in this last fifty pages than in those prior. Captain Ahab convened the crew of the Pequod and publicly announced his intention to seek and destroy the white whale that cost him his leg; the first mate, in turn, publicly announced that the captain is cracked, thereby raising the specter of mutiny. Plus, Moby-Dick himself is described (though not yet seen).
This novel is written from a curious point of view. A few months back I was reading a primer of fiction writing, and one chapter discussed the various POVs you can adopt for your narrative. I always though there were three -- first-, second-, and third-person -- but, as this book pointed out, there are actually quite a few more. There is third person intimate, for instance, where you see all the events over the shoulder of the protagonist, and can occasionally even read his thoughts. There is third person objective, where you view all characters equally and can peer into the minds of none. And there is third-person omniscient, where the narrator knows (and relates) all the relevant facts, including what the characters are thinking and feeling. Third-person omniscient was apparently quite popular with nineteenth century authors.
Moby-Dick is written in first-person omniscient. Though told from the POV of Ishmael, and usually confined only to those events he directly observes, the narrative will occasionally wander about the ship, looking through walls, eavesdropping on conversations, and letting us know that other crewmembers think.
Here's a passage from Chapter 44:
Had you followed Captain Ahab down into his cabin after the squall that took place on the night succeeding that wild ratification of his purpose with his crew, you would have seen him go to a locker in the transom, and bringing out a large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table. Then seating himself before it, you would have seen him intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye; and with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank. At intervals, he would refer to piles of old log-books beside him, wherein were set down the seasons and places in which, on various former voyages of various ships, Sperm Whales had been captured or seen.Note that Ishmael had not followed Captain Ahab down into his cabin -- he's just relating what you would have seen, had you done so. How he knows this in never explained.
Likewise with the edutainment chapters. Ishmael knew nothing about whaling before he joined the Pequod; now that they are at sea, though, he suddenly breaks the narrative with entire chapters devoted to the taxonomy of oceanic mammals and the migratory patterns of whales. Apparently he can access Wikipedia via the Pequod wireless network.
I gotta say: I'm all for artistic license, but I don't like Ishmael knowing more than he should. I'd prefer the character to be either a man or disembodied narrator, but having him as both smacks of cheating.
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November 16, 2006
Moby Dick Update
I heard this on Tuesday's Writer's Almanac:
On this day in 1851, Harper & Brothers published Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. The British publisher accidentally left out the ending of the book, the epilogue. This confused a lot of British readers, because without the epilogue there was no explanation of how Ishmael, the narrator, lived to tell the tale. It seemed like he died in the end with everyone else on the ship. The reviews from Britain were harsh, and costly to Melville. At the time, Americans deferred to British critical opinion, and a lot of American newspaper editors reprinted reviews from Britain without actually reading the American version with the proper ending. Melville had just bought a farm in Massachusetts, his debts were piling up, he was hiding them from his wife, and he was counting on Moby-Dick to bring in enough money to pay off his creditors. The book flopped, partly because of those British reviews. As a writer, Melville never recovered from the disappointment.Oh, great. You always visualize your first time reading Melville as this magical experience, something you'll remember for the rest of your life. Now it suddenly feels like pity sex.
NaNoReMo has been torpedoed. Work ate my life, and will continue gnawing on the bones for another week or so. Right now my free time is spent eating meals directly from a vending machine and idly wondering if my family still lives in that house I vaguely remember.
I probably won't be able to pick up the book again until Thanksgiving (this blog is pretty much on hiatus until then, too). I'll still be liveblogging the novel as I go, but there's pretty much no way I'll finish by December.
November 14, 2006
Moby-Dick, Chapters 34-40
Page reached: 170 of 522 (32.57%)
Status Report: I have fallen behind in my schedule, and am now reading the book in 30 page installments.
This book is taking over my life. Last night my wife asked if I wanted to watch one of the Battlestar Galactic episodes we have on DVD; I sighed and told her I had "work to do."
It doesn't help that Seattle has received nonstop rain since the first of November, including some of the heaviest downpours on record. I read about life at sea, put down the novel, look out the window, and see life imitating art, as my backyard becomes a lake and the road in front of my home transmogrifies into an impromptu creek.
I have a pile of unread and intriguing novels sitting on my bedstand. I look at them and feel like a married man in a singles bar.
Favorite passage: Second Mate Stubb observes Captain Ahab pacing the decks, deep in thought. "The chick that's in him pecks the shell. 'Twill soon be out."
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November 11, 2006
Moby-Dick, Chapters 29-33
Page reached: 140 of 522 (26.82%)
Status Report: Oh, man. Chapter 32. This is probably a strong contender for the title of Most Skimmed Chapter In Classic American Literature. I would have skipped it myself if I hadn't resolved to read this book in its entirety.
Thirteen pages long -- about three times the length of the average chapter -- "Cetology" has the narrator giving an impromptu lecture on the nature of the whale, grouping the beasts into fourteen categories and offering lengthy descriptions of each. Here, Melville uses a literary technique known as OMG BORING! In some other context I might have found this engrossing, but here it's like, "Dude, you got your marine biology lecture in my adventure story!"
I wonder how many people have quit reading Moby-Dick at "Cetology". I bet this chapter is a veritable Goodwin Sands, with a thousand shipwrecked readers littering its shore.
I could have been one of them, as Moby-Dick is perilously close to violating my One-Third Reading Policy, which states that I shall abandon any book that I am not enjoying when I am a third of the way through it. Unfortunately I am determined to finish this thing, so quitting on page 174 isn't an option. But Cetology has sapped my of all momentum. Chapter 32 is a disabled vehicle in the center lane of this book's narrative.
Words looked up::
November 10, 2006
Moby-Dick, Chapters 22-28
Page reached: 119 of 522 (22.80%)
Status Report: Confessing to kinda liking Moby-Dick in my last report brought the jinx down upon my head, because this twenty page block did nothing for me. In it we learn about the crew of the Pequod, including, at last, the mysterious Captain Ahab himself. Honestly, I don't even like meeting people in real life, so this fell short of escapist entertainment for me.
More to the point, who the hell puts exposition on page 100? It's like breaking away from a film 40 minutes in to show the opening credits. And right after the ship set sail, too -- what a tease. If anything, there's less action now that the story has begun than there was when the protagonist was still wandering aimlessly around New England. Even Melville seems to recognize the monotony of this stretch of prose, giving two adjacent chapters the same name.
I understand that knowing the background and disposition of these characters might be helpful later in the book, but this is less an introduction to the dramatis personae than a dissertation on them. He describes them at length, but from afar; we don't actually get to meet them. When literature professors exhort their students to "show, don't tell," this is what they are trying to avoid.
Favorite passage: A description of the second mate, Stubb: "A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. ... When close to the whale, in the very death-lock of the fight, he handled his unpitying lance coolly and off-handedly, as a whistling tinker his hammer. He would hum over his old rigadig tunes while flank and flank with the most exasperated monster. Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair."
Words looked up::
November 06, 2006
Moby-Dick, Chapters 17-22
Page reached: 101 of 522 (19.34%)
Status Report: You know, despite all my grousing (though, given the setting of the novel, "carping" might be a more appropriate term), I am enjoying the book so far. It is not what I expected at all. I was bracing myself for 500 pages of turgid, byzantine prose, so steeped in symbolism that the plot was little more than a hook onto which the author could hang pages upon pages of religious allegory. In truth, Moby-Dick is, first a foremost, a fairly straightforward adventure yarn, a classic tale of "Boy Meets Whale, Boy Loses Whale (and Leg), Boy Goes in Search of Whale" story.
As for Melville's logorrhea ... well, I'll tell you a secret. I like long-winded authors. One of my favorite contemporary writers is John Irving, famous for his ability to bury a 100 page story in 400 page book. And the novel I've most enjoyed in the last few years was House of Leaves, a book which, like Dick, has more asides, tangents, and digressions than actual narrative.
The atomic story unit in Moby Dick, I've discovered, is about twenty pages; that is, some major event that advances the plot happens about once every score of pages. I'm now on page 100, and I'd say about five things have really transpired: we met Ishmael, Ishmael met Queequeg, the two traveled to Nantucket, they signed papers to serve on the Pequod, and the Pequod set sail (at last, in the final line of chapter 22).
This works out great for me, as I reading the book in twenty-page chunks -- 20 x 30 days = 600 pages, which means can take four days off and still finish it before December. So, really, it's like tackling a chapter a day. And each evening, as I tuck into the novel, I feel like I am reading the next installment of a serialized adventure story found in the back of Boys Life magazine.
Words looked up::
November 04, 2006
Moby-Dick, Chapters 10-16
Page reached: 79 of 522 (15.13%)
Status Report: "Let's go grab some lunch," you propose to a co-worker.
"Yeah, that sounds good," she replies. "Where do you want to go?"
"Oh, anywhere is fine. What do you feel like?"
"I don't care, I like everything." She ducks her head into another person's cubicle. "Hey, Carolyn, we're going to lunch. Do you wanna come?"
Fast-forward seventy minutes. You're standing in the reception area of your office, and your "lunch party" now contains enough of your colleagues to form two rugby teams. You're not even sure who you are waiting for, though you occasionally see people wander off toward the restrooms, or back to their PCs to check their email "one last time" before you depart. You still haven't settled on a destination. Your stomach has begun digesting its own lining out of desperation.
This is how Moby-Dick is making me feel.
At least we've gotten to the ship. But it has yet to sail. And as Chapter 21 is entitled "Going Aboard," I'm guessing it's going to remain moored for another score of pages at the minimum.
Much of the last seven chapters was devoted to the burgeoning friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Having shared a bed the night they met, the two are now shacking up at every opportunity, though -- and I cannot stress this enough -- in a completely non-homoerotic way. I say that for the benefit of any school superintendents reading this, who would ban this book from their library in a heartbeat if they knew that, so far, the novel has been much more Brokeback than Humpback.
Favorite Passage: First sentence for chapter fourteen: "Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning; so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket." Actually laughed out loud when I read that. Either Meleville got writer's cramp that morning or seven chapters were excised between 13 and 14, as lack of notice-worthy events did not deter him from writing the first 80 pages.
Words looked up::
November 03, 2006
Moby-Dick: Chapters 5-9
Page reached: 47 of 522 (9%)
Status report: A friend of mine once announced that he had deduced the secret to Stephen King's success.
"Short chapters, man," he told me. "Those things are like potato chips. You read one, and then you flip ahead and see how long the next one is, and you're, like, 'shoot, I can read three more pages.' And then suddenly you've finished a 900 page book."
Of course, King usually just enumerates his titles rather than give them titles; when he does employ titles, they are typically cryptic. You're willing to invest in three more pages because a chapter with a title like "34" or "Home Base" might involve a cat coming back to life or someone getting run down by a '58 Plymouth Fury.
Not so with Melville. When you see a chapter entitled "Breakfast," you know full well which meal is going to be described in detail.
Each chapter in Moby-Dick is like a door reading "Broom Closet," behind which you find a closet containing brooms. Outlandishly overwrought brooms, admittedly -- with handles carved from cherrywood and quetzal feathers as bristles -- but, still, pretty much exactly as advertised. And when you see a series of titles like "Breakfast * The Street * The Chapel * The Pulpit * The Sermon," you know the exact sequence of events that will unfold over the next five chapters, like a route plotted on a Google map. It's like Melville first outlined his book using one and two-word phrases, turned those into chapter titles, and then built upward, adding a few thousand words here and there to flesh things out.
If I were to do this all over again, I might have chosen to simply read through the Table of Contents over the course of the month.
Favorite passage: "In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers."
Words looked up:
New Crewmates: albiewise.
The crew of the S. S. Melville continues to swell: so far my in-real-life buddy John, as well as a number of LiveJournalists, have agreed to join me in my quixotic quest to get this novel under my belt by November 31st. (Only 30 days in November? My scheduled is fuxx0red!)
In the Day One thread, Debra writes "Wish I'd known this sooner as it would be fun to read and blog along with someone on the same book." Ah, but peoples: this is why I am providing links to each chapter as I go. Read along in comfort of your own cubicle in lieu of work -- at least until you can get to your local thrift store and pick up one of their 30 copies.
If you start late or don't keep pace, you can still read these posts in order as you go, whenever that might be. But it would be more fun, obviously, to have you up-to-date and contributing to the conversation in the daily thread..
If you're joining the crew, drop me an email or mention it in the thread of this post.
November 02, 2006
Moby-Dick: Chapters 2-4
Possible Pitfalls Of Liveblogging The Reading Of Moby-Dick
I suppose I could switch to another book, it's only Day Two. But, if I did, I'd have to keep it to prevent a reoccurrence of this kind of asshattery. So most of my entries would read like this:
Got to page 144 today. The chapter where the guy did the thing really moved me, though I frankly found it pretty unbelievable that those two people would run into each other in that building, considering how they had already met during that big event and then again at that place near the other place.And so, we persevere.
Page reached: 28 of 522 (5.36%)
Status report: Here's why I will never produce a Great American Novel. If I were to have my narrator stay the night at a inn, I would write:
And so he checked into a local hotel, spending most of the evening watching softcore porn on HBO2.Melville, though -- this guy acts like his paper is ablaze and he's trying to quench the flames with ink.
Chapter two has Ishmael ambling around town, looking for a place to stay. And one point he stops in front of an inn, and Melville devotes a few paragraphs to describing it, before the Ishmael wanders off. Some of my precious, few remaining brain cells now contain the description of an inn I strongly suspect will play no further role in this story.
Chapters three and four cover Ishmael's night at the "Spouter Inn," where he winds up sharing a bed with a savage named Queequeg. The name Queequeg seems vaguely familiar to me, so presumably he's a major character and not just some one-night stand.
One thing that several people remarked upon in yesterday's thread was the abudant humor in the book, which some people manage to overlook, apparently. Chapter three is ripe with it: the interaction between Ishmael and Queequeg boarders on farce. One thing I was worried about, going into this, was that this book about the sea would be thoroughly dry. My concerns appear to be unfounded.
Despite Melville's volubility, I am enjoying this so far.
Words looked up:
November 01, 2006
Moby-Dick: Preamble and Chapter 1
Page reached: 6 of 552 (1.15% compelte)
Status report: Page six?! Jesus, what a rip-off. I read fourteen pages of preamble and get no credit for it whatsoever.
Actually, to be honest, I kinda skipped around the "Extracts" part, skimmed here and there. Yes, I was cutting corners even before I got to page one, but come on. I feel like Joanne from "Office Space":
You know what, Stan, if you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair, like your pretty boy over there, Brian, why don't you just make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?Right. Exactly. And you know what, Melville? If you want me to read a dozen pages of whale descriptions, why don't you just include it in the book proper, give those pages nice American numbers like "4" and "11," instead of this roman numeral crap. According to my calculus, x = optional.
And, anyway: I have the benefit of a quality, late 20th-century public school education, so I already knew what a whale was before I even opened your tome, thank you very much.
In chapter one, the narrator (a guy I like to call "Ishmael") goes on an on about how every man, woman, child, and housecat feels the inexorable call of the sea:
Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land?Already I feel like I'm on a date with someone who does not share my interests. Yes, I have felt vibrations while sailing on ships, but they were more gastrointestinal than mystical. And I've never felt crazy to go to sea. Me, I'm a big fan of land, the sort of terrain you can ride a bike across and build a bagel store on. If empathizing with the narrator's hydrophilia is a prerequisite for enjoying this book, I may be in trouble.
Favorite passage: "The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!"
Words looked up:
Moby Dick Liar
The following is an encore performance of this entry, which was first posted to dy on July 30, 2003.
David Sedaris says he read Moby Dick. The liar. Well, I assume he's lying, because (a) he's a humorist (i.e., professional liar) and (b) it's well known that 71% of all Moby-Dick-reading claims are lies. I dunno -- maybe he did read it. It's possible, I guess.
In any case, even if he tried he probably got further into the book than I did. Earlier this year I, too, decided that, at long last, I would tackle Moby Dick. So I checked it out from the library, brought it home, and then assiduously ignored it for a few weeks while I read Nero Wolfe mysteries and graphic novels. Finally, one evening, I decided to bite the literary bullet. As I lay in bed before turning off the light, I picked up the well-worn volume, turned to Chapter One ("Loomings"), and prepared to fulfill a lifelong goal of mine.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely --having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me ...Wait, what? Driving off the spleen? Whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me?
Unnerved, I pressed on.
... whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.I put the book back on my bedside table, turned to The Queen, and said "Hey, just FYI: I am not going to read Moby Dick. Like, never, in my entire life."
The Queen gave me the briefest of glances, shrugged, and went back to reading her own book. This is why I married her.
I enjoy crossing things off my "To-Do In This Life" list, and I've been x-ing out a lot of them in the last couple years. Not accomplishing things and then crossing them off, oh no; just attempting (or mentally reevaluating) them and then announcing "Yeah, that's not happening." Like, I always wanted to run a marathon. And, point in fact, I'm sure I could do the Seattle Marathon in November if I wanted to. But I recently ran a half marathon and, oh brother, whatta freakin' drag. By mile 8 I was totally bored. By mile 10 I was wishing I'd brought a magazine. The idea of running 13.1 miles twice -- hell, if I wanted that kind of excitement I'd buckle down and read Moby Dick. Which I could also do. If I wanted to. Which I don't.
Ten years ago, if you asked me if I had read Ulysses, I probably would have just scoffed "of course" or hedged with an "I've been too busy reading Milan Kundera" or whatever. Now, at the age of 32, I not only lack the initiative to read boring classics or run marathons, I don't even feel the urge to lie about it any more. "Never read Ulysses and never will," I'm likely to say today. "I got shitfaced in an Irish bar once, and I figure that's close enough."
Some people might say that lowering your standards is no way to meet your life goals. But those people are a bunch of 20-something Moby Dick liars, so, seriously: who cares what they think?