I’ve often noted that this A Softer World comic is my favourite, and very applicable to me. Especially as relates to my desire to read more classics. Over the past few years, my reading has almost wholly consisted of non-fiction. Either news and current events (miss you, Google Reader!) or various spectrum-related policy documents and telecom engineering material, in addition to various grad school readings. I don’t have a lot of time to read fiction or, rather, haven’t made it a priority. (Although, while doing the marathon training I did listen to a number of audiobooks.) Combining these two factors helped me to make the goal of finally — finally! — finishing Moby Dick last year.
I’ve probably started the book half a dozen times or more but never seemed to get further than about 30 pages in a sitting. Inevitably, I’d become busy with other things and weeks or months would pass, so I’d need to start again. And while the book has one of the most recognizable openings in English literature (“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.”), the story didn’t immediately catch my interest. Clearly. But with a with a determination only a pale shadow of Ahab’s, I decided that I would get through the story in 2013.
I’ve always been aware of the premise of Moby Dick, one man’s obsessive quest to slay the white whale. But I was expecting perhaps more high adventure, terse stand-offs between captain and crew, violent sea battles against the whale and weather that pushed the Pequod to the brink of ruin. And, in fact, all these elements are in there.
Yet, there are also chapters upon chapters of Melville expounding on all facets of the 19th century whaling industry, rendering in extreme detail/minutiae everything from whaling ship rigging modifications to the rendering process of sperm whales to obtain oil and spermaceti — (noun) a pearly white, waxy, translucent solid, obtained from the oil in the head of the sperm whale: used chiefly in cosmetics and candles, and as an emollient; also called cetaceum. Chapters on genus and species classifications of various whales and dolphins and aquatic creatures.
Some of this information is incorrect based on modern science (I seem to recall dolphins being considered fish…) but there is also substantial amounts of accurate scientific information. The book was published in 1851, after all, so I think we can forgive Melville some errors. But at times I wasn’t sure if I was reading a novel or a 19th century biology textbook. And that made for some very, very, very, dry reading.
I read the book in snatches over the course of the year. 15-20 book pages here at home in my reading chair, five or six pages there on the subway using my iPhone, a few pages on my iPad while traveling. I’d go weeks without reading anything (which was okay after I’d hit 80+ pages, and had a good grip on things) and then read three days in a row on my commute. I remember regularly checking my completion percentage after getting 400+ pages through, and noting how glacially it crept closer to 100% — as long and slow as the Pequod’s travels throughout the Pacific, looking for signs of the white whale.
Heading away for winter vacation, I had nearly finished the story. I knew I needed to bear down if I was to bring Ishmael’s tale to an end before 2013 ran out but, also, that with only 50 pages or so, it would be done. I brought my book with me, and on December 27th while at the beach, damn me if I didn’t manage to do so. I could now say that I’d read Moby Dick.
Finishing the book didn’t cost me my leg or my life, no vessels were destroyed, widows and orphans made, nor crew members perished. My desire to finish never transformed into an all-consuming obsession and I’m left to wonder, do I feel that deeply about anything? What drives a person to grapple with such an obsession, to be conscious of it as Ahab was but accepting (resigned to?) one’s nature, knowing that it will most likely lead to your demise? Training for the marathon took a lot of commitment, especially as my schedule started to be built around running days and I consumed a steady diet of anti-inflammatories to deal with the wear-and-tear on my body. But it was self-discipline, self imposed. A desire to do something, not necessarily because I truly wanted to, but because I wanted to be the kind of person who had done it.
Ahab’s obsession drove him to his destruction, and the destruction of nearly everyone around him, including those who were actively assisting him. Certainly training for a marathon didn’t involve anyone’s death, though it did contribute to some challenges, I’m sure. I pushed myself hard, physically and mentally, but not to my limits I think, and definitely not beyond. Upon suffering training injuries, I gave myself permission to simply finish the race and not worry about my time. And thus, perhaps I am more Ishmael than Ahab. Someone who can observe obsession and understand it, be close and participate but not be consumed by it.
Moby Dick is not a likely candidate to be counted as one of my favourite books. In fact, I’m likely to commiserate with anyone who complains of having to slog through it. Undoubtedly some unlucky student; who besides me would be willing to subject themselves to such things? But like all great books, it has contributed to self-reflection, and that in itself makes it a valuable experience and the marathon effort to read was worth it.