Sunday, February 28, 2010

Me v. Moby: Part One

6:18 a.m. The next book I promise to live blog will have less than 30 pages. I’m considering The Lorax.

6:19 a.m. “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most recognizable first sentences in literature, but I’m not sure why. It’s not as thoughtful as “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” or as clever as “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” It is not as catchy as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (Yes, I realize the opening to A Tale of Two Cities runs on for another four lines but nobody quotes anything after the worst of times, anyhow.)

Meanwhile, “Call me Ishmael” only seems to have two strengths. It’s concise and it introduces Ishmael without using passive tense.

If nothing else, it qualifies Moby Dick as the rare novel written in second person.

6:22 a.m. Heh, Ishmael owns a purse.

6:34 a.m. Moby Dick, a study in conciseness: “…I never fancied broiling fowls;—though once broiled, judiciously buttered and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a boiled fowl than I will.

I can say that in seven words. “I don’t cook but I like chicken.”

6:39 a.m. OK, I was just complaining about conciseness, so I have to admire when Melville writes, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.”

7:07 a.m. I lost some time trying to figure out what the innkeeper meant when he said he’d give Ishmael “a glim in a jiffy.” Turns out a glim is a light source (a glimmer), and a jiffy is a brief unit of time. So he’s saying that he’ll give Ishmael a light quickly.

That would not have been my first guess.

7:19 a.m. I am one hour and three chapters into this experiment. Let me summarize the plot until this point:

Ishmael wants to fish. He goes to Nantucket and stays at a dive bar. He eats dumplings. His roommate is a cannibal named Queequeg (who I will call Quee, for short.) After some initial misgivings, Ishmael and Quee agree to share a bed.

Yes, that took an hour.

7:25 a.m. “A pretty pickle, truly, though I: abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal and a tomahawk!”

I’ve been there, brother. I’ve been there.
7:35 a.m. I want a T-shirt that says, “To do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.”

7:43 a.m. I usually bristle at Hawthorne-esque, inflated prose. But, every now and then, it gives you something beautiful, something that makes me think, “They don’t write it like that anymore.”

For example: “Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being.”

7:46 a.m. That having been said, I’m entrenched in a 4-chapter tangent about Ishmael taking a walk.

7:55 a.m. I’m stuck in the ninth chapter, which is a long-winded sermon about Jonah. I’m sure Herman Melville will revisit these themes of spirituality and death, but this is what Elmore Leonard meant when he wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

(Yeah, I just used Elmore Leonard to critique Melville. What of it?)

8:04 a.m. You think church-going whalers get tired of hearing about Jonah? Yes, yes, we get it. Jonah got swallowed by a whale. We hunt whales. We understand the association. There are other minor prophets. Can we talk about one of them?

8:11 a.m. To summarize the last six chapters: Ishmael woke up, found Quee’s arm around him and recalled a long-repressed, childhood memory. They got dressed and ate breakfast. Ishmael went for a walk, pondered the musk of Salem women, visited a church and listened to a sermon about Jonah. (Y’know, there are other appropriate sermons for fishermen. A third of the apostles were fishermen. Talk about them.)

I just read about 20 pages of atmosphere. It was well written and none of it was laborious except for the sermon, but it feels like fat that could have been shed. Eh, Melville wrote during a different era and it’s unfair to judge him by modern standards.

I’m getting breakfast, but I’ll be back.

-Jason Lea,

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Blogger Garrett Morrison said...

Hi Jason: It's great that you're reading - and liveblogging your reading of - Moby-Dick, but my goodness, you're already complaining about a lack of concision? This is Moby-Dick! Just wait for a little (read: not little) chapter called "Cetology."

By the way, your suggestion, no matter how lighthearted, that Melville's strange and gorgeous sentence about boiled fowl might be shortened to "I don't cook but I like chicken" just made every Melville fan worldwide scream in agony. We're not talking Hemingway here!

February 28, 2010 at 2:40 PM 

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