Wednesday, August 15, 2012

He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri

I try, every summer, to take a break from all the reading of contemporary fiction I do.  As a bookseller, part of my job is to keep up on what's new, or what will be new soon.  Perhaps 80% of my reading is advance reading copies ("ARCS" in pub-speak) that publishers send out to booksellers in the hopes that we will fall in love with a book and promote it and hand-sell it when it is actually published.  I reached a point about a decade ago where I realized that other than a few poetry collections, all I ever, ever read (at my usual pace of 3-6 books a week) were books that were still three months away from being published.  Among other things, this makes it difficult to talk about books with friends, even book-loving friends:

"What are you reading these days?"
"Oh, this book called Emerald Snake in the Tall Dry Grass--It's a great novel about ghosts, and sisters, and how small town America is both a haven and  a trap...really great stuff, like Faulkner and J.D. Salinger had a baby."
"Sounds great, I bet I'd like it."
"You probably would.  But it doesn't come out until next March, and I already loaned my copy to a co-worker."   (Conversation ends here.)

To help combat ARC-only reading, and to help fill in some of the many gaps in my education and reading history, I decided to use the summer (later shortened to August) to read  works by an author I didn't know very well.  I've had summer romances with Dickens, with Edith Wharton, with Willa Cather, and with the entire New York Review Classics series--all sorts of excellent titles that had been out of print, until someone stood up and said, "Hey. This needs to be back in the world and on book shelves."  Well-known writers nominate books to be re-published and write introductions for them.    When I started at a new bookstore I got out of my summer classics habit. This summer I decided to not let the time slot slip by, and reluctantly, and with a great deal of hemming, delay, and trepidation, started to read Moby-Dick.  (It was either that or
cracking open my still wrapped-in-plastic editions of Proust.)

And I am loving it.  Somehow I had the impression it was a "difficult" work, dense, verbose, and, well, boring.  I didn't expect the short prose-poemy chapters, or humor, or a rolling and rollicking sea of delightful language.  Here, I am going to describe the town, Melville says, and he takes a chapter and does just that. Here's a church, here's a pastor, here's his sermon--each gets a chapter.

Maybe things will get muddier as Ahab and Company get further from land and as the Great White Whale himself first surfaces. Maybe I should not yet be proclaiming a very public love for Melville's masterpiece. It's only page 188, for Pete Squeaks.  But hear ye oh my friends and Fellow Sailors, my deckhands and lordlings and ladies of Ocean the Mighty--this so far is a delightful voyage out.  Maybe I was supposed to wait to read Melville until I myself had been out on the ocean and saw whales, glorious city buses, rising up, sleek and monstrous and beautiful, out of deep water mere feet from the (suddenly small) boat that carried me. Two summers ago off Provincetown I got to do that.

And while I heard it before, I never knew for sure what the word confabulations meant until today when I read it and had Mr. Google help me look it up. Thanks Herman, for that and so many other fine soundings:

"Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents' beds, unerringly I rush! Naught's an obstacle, naught's an angle to the iron way!"

1 comment:

  1. I finally read Moby Dick at the turn of the year. Most of it is wonderful, but I did find it had its slogs. I love his language and sense of chaptering.