Monday, August 9, 2010

seeking sentiment in tar and blubber

When asked what I’m doing this summer, my stock answer is “reading Moby-Dick.”

Due to budget cuts, the library where I work part-time is closed this month. As for my other job, running a non-profit that serves impoverished school libraries, there’s not a whole lot to do when school isn’t in session. So, August is a slow month for me on the work front. And if I’m going to be honest, June and July weren’t exactly bustling either.

I would have liked to use this free time to travel a bit, but my bank account is still recovering from The Great Engine Explosion of February, which was followed a month later by P.S. You Need A Brake Job Too, Sucker! Oh, and then in April, How About a Retreatment of a Root Canal from a Endonondist who Claimed to be In-Network, but Oops!, $1200 later, Turns Out He Wasn’t?

That leaves Moby-Dick and Me. Hello, summer.

I don’t think I would’ve picked up the book on my own, but a couple of library school alums formed an MB reading group, and I was inspired to join. It’s also Shannon’s favorite book. I miss her a lot, so I figure reading MB is sort of like us hanging, tickling each other’s brains. All of that said, I’m pretty sure I’m the only group member who is actually reading the thing. Over on the MB Facebook discussion page, it’s crickets.

I’m treading along at a moderate pace because, of course, I’m reading too many other things. I’m nearly finished with Just Kids, Patti Smith’s account of her early years with Robert Mapplethorpe, and I’m still plugging away at The Collected Stories of Deoborah Eisenberg, which at 960 pages is actually four books in one. Four hundred pages down, I’m halfway through the second book. I’ll continue reading the stories intermittently, alongside Lydia Davis, which means I probably won’t wrap it up til Christmas. I preordered the new Franzen novel, which should arrive on my doorstep in a couple of weeks, and I’m dying to read David Lipsky’s account of traveling with David Foster Wallace during his Infinite Jest Book Tour. Also, I would like to read most of these 100 recommended magazine articles (note that seven DFW articles made the list, which, fortunately, I've already read).

I'm also practicing a fair amount of yoga, running through my neighborhood’s canyons and, now that the Dolls’ annual summer hiatus has concluded, I’m back in roller derby training. So, I guess I'm keeping busy. But what I really should be doing is learning Spanish.

From SparkNotes on Moby-Dick: The movements of whales, like all of the secrets of the ocean, are largely hidden, and the whalemen’s struggles to piece together what they see and hear resemble other people’s struggles to make meaning out of life or stories in books.

A few weeks ago, I went to a screening of my friend Rick’s films. I brought a date, and we struck up a conversation with Rick’s new roommate, Larry.

"How is your summer going?” Larry asked.

“Well, I’m reading Moby-Dick.”

“Are you interested in whaling?”

“Not particularly.”

“Then why are you reading it?”

Before I could answer, my date interjected.

“Maybe because it’s in the canon? It’s a classic.”

“Yes, but I don’t understand why someone would read it if they weren’t interested in whaling."

“I’m fine with the whaling," I said, "but I guess I'm more interested in the book thematically, and in Melville as a writer."

Larry looked perplexed.

“But it’s about whaling. How can it hold your interest if you don't care about whaling?”

The date interjected again. “Do you really think every person that reads Moby-Dick does so because they’re interested in whaling?’

“Most, yes.”

And from here, the conversation between the men – neither of whom had actually read Moby-Dick – escalated. I extricated myself, floating toward the table where a bottle of whiskey twinkled.

"Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever."


Crystal Lee said...

I don't think I have any interest in reading Moby Dick, because it's about whaling & it seems so masculine, and it's too long. But, i am interested in borrowing "Just Kids". Speaking of DFW, did you read my copy of "Oblivion" yet? This weekend, your summer will also include running naked through the forest. yay!

allison orphan said...

hahahaha! whaling!

Judy Gloom said...

Crystal, you just took that guy Larry's side. Sure, the plot is about whaling, but thematically, there's a lot more going on.

You can totally borrow "Just Kids." In fact, I think you'd really like it -- Smith is so obsessed with 19th century French poets, and the text is dense with references. I should be finished before the weekend.

I didn't read all of "Oblivion," but some of the stories. I don't feel the same affinity for DFW's fiction as I do his essays and journalism. I really enjoyed "Good Old Neon," however. I can return it to you tomorrow.

Judy Gloom said...

Allison, I saw Larry again at Rick's apartment on Saturday and we basically had the exact same conversation.

Groom said...

"To Call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales" --N.Y. Times book review
I love it! I teach high school English and am constantly beating my head into the wall of all the little Larry's refusal to consider why they should read a book they have no interest in.

Moby Dick is tied with Invisible man as my favorite novel. I believe they are the two seminal works of American literature.

It's less about whaling and more about one man's rage against the injustice of mortality and his doomed crusade to take revenge for it against the infinite and everlasting that teases us with a life that gives us the impression that we too are infinite and everlasting....or something like that

Adriana said...

Moby Dick is about the metaphorical ambergris we all hunt and risk our lives for.

In other news, I want to learn Spanish, too. Want to take a class?

Pladdis said...

Judy Gloom, name-checked on NPR! (as you most surely know...)

Check it...

Judy Gloom said...

@Pladdis -- thanks for the tip. yeah, i heard it when it aired and it caught me by surprise. p.s. i am digging your blog!