Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Michael Hingston on Moby-Dick


Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail atticsaltblog@gmail.com.

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Today's favorite book is from Michael Hingston, a writer and editor based in Edmonton, Alberta. He runs a literary blog called Too Many Books in the Kitchen.

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My favorite book is Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Yawn, right? After all, everyone knows it — it’s an epic of whaling and obsession, and has long been seen as one of the true, undisputed American classics. Pop culture is bursting with references to that eponymous white whale. It’s so canonized that it’s taught, with near-religious fervor, to roomfuls of bored high school students year after year after year.

But not to me. Because I grew up in Canada.

For some reason, my high school didn’t teach the novels that I’ve now come to realize are standard issue in the U.S. No Huck Finn, no Catcher in the Rye, and no Gatsby. Maybe it has something to do with Canada’s subtle tendency to align itself with England, its ostensible motherland, instead of the U.S., its actual neighbor. Either way, we tended to read European books, like 1984, or Elie Wiesel’s Night. I was a pretty good English student, but something like Moby-Dick wasn’t even close to appearing on my radar. (Though to be fair, in those days my radar was mostly consumed by Slurpees, Tony Hawk 2 for N64, and girls with belly button piercings.) It was, I figured, one of those books that mostly old people liked.

Somehow I ended up studying English at university, where the value of the classics gradually dawned on me. And so, over the course of my degree, I read some of those American novels that I’d missed out on the first time. They were wonderful. But I was also hearing steady rumblings about the greatness — and not just the inherited greatness that comes with age — of Melville’s masterpiece. I’d already read his “Bartleby,” “Benito Cereno,” and Billy Budd in three separate courses, and adored them all. Then an acquaintance of mine wrote her honors thesis on Moby-Dick, and got a tattoo of a sperm whale wrapped around her torso. My interest was officially piqued. When a particularly rugged and charismatic American studies professor announced he was devoting an entire course to that one novel in the summer of 2007, I was first in line to sign up.

Other people with the same answer will have completely different perspectives, but I’m confident that Moby-Dick would never have become my favorite book if I’d read it in high school. For one thing, I was a lazy, smart-ass teenager. I had no patience whatsoever. More importantly, I hadn’t read enough. It was only after a few years of puttering around in university, making my way through a bunch of different styles of writing, that I was able to begin to appreciate how fucking weird Moby-Dick is. It is a great novel, absolutely, and it is a funny and wise and heartbreaking novel, but mostly what I love about it is its deep commitment to being as weird as possible, as often as possible.

It opens with two glorious false starts: a half-made-up etymology of the word whale, and then a string of 80 — yes, you read that right, 80 — epigraphs, from all kinds of places, each of which in some roundabout way invokes whales or whaling. One of the most famous opening lines in literature, “Call me Ishmael,” doesn’t actually appear until damn near page 20. This is Melville’s disclaimer. Abandon all preconceptions, ye who enter here.

From there, the novel tries valiantly to be all things to all people: an adventure yarn, a series of long-winded encyclopedia entries, a ribald bildungsroman, a brooding meditation on infinity and nothingness, and a laser-precise take down of humanity’s all-consuming and quite probably insane quest for knowledge. This is why it’s a long book, and why a lot of people get upset or grow bored with it — it engages not one facet of your literary vocabulary, but all of them, used in tandem. Suffice it to say that this is not what a book usually asks of its reader. If you hear a faint whirring noise while reading Moby-Dick, it’s the sound of your brain overheating.

But this constant firing on all cylinders is also what makes the book so malleable, and why it lends itself so easily to reinvention. Moby-Dick is a story about why we need alpha-male heroes, if that’s what you want it to be. It’s also a cautionary tale about the dangers of overfishing. It’s about femininity. It’s about genocide. Above all, it’s about falling head over heels in love with language — with the sheer acrobatics that the written word can be put through and still come out gleaming. Melville sought to capture the universe inside this book, and to my mind he came astonishingly close.

My house bears witness to the impressions the book has left and continues to leave on me. I own Moby-Dick pop-up books, graphic novels, science fiction adaptations, and a framed poster that dominates my living room. Sometimes I still idly search eBay for old Rockwell Kent illustrations and bootleg Hanna-Barbera VHS tapes.

The deepest marks of all are harder to see, though perhaps easier to recognize over time. In the end Moby-Dick is my favorite because it’s given me the biggest push towards being a better person. It’s made me more alert to the chaotic world around me, more curious about the things I don’t know, and more suspicious of the things I think I do.

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