This was the passage I stopped reading ‘Moby Dick’ on:
“Lakeman! – Buffalo! Pray, what is a Lakeman, and where is Buffalo?”
That’s page 292 in the Barnes & Noble Classics edition. Right at the top of the page. I actually shook my head, slammed the tome closed and put it down.
“Nope,” I said. “Nope. Absolutely not.”
I was done. Done done. Monopoly-marathon-game-that’s-still-going-after-seven-hours done. And I was pretty upset about it.
2014 was supposed to be the year of ‘Moby Dick,’ the lauded American classic about a vengeful, disfigured captain and his adversary, an equally-vengeful, disfigured sperm whale. It’s “the” book. “The” classic English and literature teachers place at the center of candlelit altars.
All but one, perhaps. I remember being in high school and listening to my own mother, a veteran public school teacher and college professor, rail against the story. Her main issue was author Herman Melville’s many segue’s, how he often abandoned a compelling narrative about the ocean’s fury and the futility of vengeance for frequent 10-page drivel-fests on nautical terminology, the whaling industry, and other such “data” one might expect to find in an early 19th century textbook.
My father took the opposite route. I remember watching the John Huston-directed film adaptation with him as a kid and liking it, how he always encouraged me to scoop the book up and give it a go.
Talk about being torn.
Fast forward 20 years later. It was time to check the box on reading this elusive tale. I made it my New Years Resolution, scooped it up and got going.
The first 100 pages felt like a honeymoon. Melville paints a beautiful picture of New England whaling towns during the early 19th century. I could see the shipyards and lazy flocks of gulls meandering overhead. I heard their far-off calls and the creak of the anchored boats.
“Huh, Mom didn’t like this,” I thought. “Weird.”
Then the gods of Literature and Irony decided to high five and send a Plague of Yawning Confusion my way. Melville’s focus shifted from narrator Ishmael’s point of view to a homicide investigation bulletin board: pictures, words and incomplete, rambling thoughts all tacked up and poorly assembled with pieces of yarn and angrily-scrawled Sharpie arrows.
There were whole chapters on the whaling industry, nautical terminology, psychology, and more. All departures felt abrupt, like yanks on still-mending stitches.
I was Captain Ahab, and the book was my elusive white whale, ever out of reach.
Like any 21st-century 30-something, I took to social media with my issue, asked if anyone had ever just flat-out not finished a book. If they’d ever just, at some point, looked at the still-unread pages and thought, “No way.”
The online responses were nearly unanimous. Yes, they said. Yes, we have. Don’t worry, Ryan. You’re not alone in this. We’ve all been there. A former editor of mine summed it up nicely, as editors are apt to do: “Way too many books to waste life on ones you don’t like.”
And he’s right. But there’s something frightening about that logic, too. As a librarian acquaintance of mine showed me, a a staggering 57 percent of started books are not finished. That’s a little disturbing to me. I mean…of course, read what you like, but that seems like an awful lot of words to just give up on. Right?
But as the Medford School District and its teachers union recently showed me, you can compromise on pretty much anything. Officially, I have not yet given up on the tale. For now, it’s just getting a bookmark put in it, sandwiched between pages 292 and 293.
At the recommendation of one of my current editors, I’m taking a leave of absence, Mr. Melville. I’m due for a vacation, a siesta, a detox from your eternal abyss of disjointed, drunken diary entries. And I’m not sorry. ‘Moby Dick’ may be considered the holy temple in the Lost City of Literature, but that doesn’t make its interior any less dusty or poorly-lit.
I need some fresh air, to remember that reading for fun isn’t supposed to involve so much work.
But I’ll be back. Count on it. I’ll have my hazmat suit on this time.
My harpoon will be ready.