Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Floundering around in Moby *expletive deleted*

So, inspired again by my pal Jacqui, I decided to participate in her summer remedial literature project. After all, despite the numerous classic novels I read during my college days--and sometimes on my own, just to feel virtuous--there are a quite a few gaps in my education. (Especially in American lit, due to the particular bias of my degree program.) Anyway, Melville's "Moby Dick" suggested itself pretty quickly. First of all, everyone seemed to have avoided reading that one, although everyone knows it's about a big white whale. And hey, they quoted it in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," and that was a pretty cool movie. If it inspired an upper-division Trek flick, how boring could it be?

Oh. My. Lord.

Now, one thing I will grant MD is that the chapters are short. Sometimes very short--less than a page. So I'm feeling like I'm making progress, because I'm on chapter 48 (out of 135), even though I've only been reading bits here and there. Unfortunately, I'm on chapter 48 and they've only been at sea a couple of days. I thought this book was about chasing a white whale, so what gives? The character sketches have been pretty interesting, but why the 10-page chapters classifying different kinds of whales, and talking about whales through history, and recounting tales of whales attacking ships? It seems like Ahab is not the only one obsessed with whales, I thought to myself.

Then I really thought about the why behind all this seemingly dull information. When Melville was writing, his audience had no real idea what whales looked like. There was no Discovery Channel HD to show us whales in all their glory, both above and below the water. There was no Sea World so that landlubbers could see Shamu in action. The best any of his readers might do, assuming they weren't whalers themselves, was to catch a glimpse of a fin at a distance off shore, or in rare cases see a beached or butchered specimen. So the idea of a whale as large as a ship, one that could attack people and destroy boats, must have seemed pretty fantastic. For Melville's contemporaries, reading about the different types of whales and their capabilities might have been as captivating as reading about hippogriffs, phoenixes, and spells in the latest Harry Potter is for us.

So, a couple of lessons for me in this observation. The first is to have a little patience with ol' Moby, and try to see the sense of wonder that Melville was trying to create with these descriptions. (It wasn't like I was going to quit the book without finishing, I can be particularly stubborn when it comes to books. And maybe the best part is at the end.)

The second lesson applies to my own writing, especially fantasy: I may have lots of details to share with you about this world I've created, but don't spend ten *expletive deleted* pages on mere details!


  1. Diane, you are not making me excited for two weeks from now...

  2. Well, I'm hoping it gets better, but now I'm 40% through (yes, I'm continually counting chapters) and I'm still waiting for something interesting to happen. I just suffered through two or three (short) chapters on inaccurate and accurate depictions of whales in the arts ... including whittling.

    Still, more than half the book remains. It has to get more interesting, doesn't it?