I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I started Moby Dick three or four times before I actually finished it. That was in 2014, and since then, I’ve had this strange sort of longing for it, sort of like how, early on, Ishmael describes his longing for being on the water. I’ve never read another book that feels so much like an experience to read, and I think it’s an experience all writers can benefit from. [I would say all people, but I don’t like to take my generalizations too far–I’m a writer, so I’ll just stick to speaking for that section of the population.] I’m about 2/3 way through my second read and it’s better the second time, but you only need to read it once to be in the “Yeah, I’ve read Moby Dick,” club.
Why Read Moby Dick:
- Because it’s bold. Melville takes formulaic risks here that still read as courageous, even 160 years after it was published, even after post modernism. It’s amazing that anyone published this beast at all, and the fact that it will probably be read for all time could give writers a kind of boost to break the rules, to take readers in uncomfortable, stylistically forbidden places. No matter what we do, we probably won’t do anything as wacky as what Melville does in this book. So we might as well just try out whatever strange idea comes to us.
- Because it flopped when it came out. It’s like the “Starry Night” of literature, a reminder that you have to write honestly from your gut, write what you care about, and risk scathing criticism. It’s a 138 (including the preludes and epilogue) part reminder that fortune is not guaranteed, but we have to write what we believe in anyway.
- Because it’s a masterpiece. Now, I’m not really a big believer in “the canon,” and I get how we need to stop letting the white supremacist patriarchy tell us what’s good to read. Even so, part of why this is a masterpiece is because of its ahead-of-its-time critique of white supremacy/empire. Sure, there are some times Melville’s 1851 white male POV is showing, but for the most part, he challenges and deconstructs power a century before Derrida and Foucault ever thought to. So read this alongside your Toni Morrison novels and you might find out that they’re dialoguing more than you’d have predicted.
How to Read Moby Dick:
- Slowly. This novel is like a 500 page + Lydia Davis flash story, and every sentence needs to be savored as much as possible. Don’t pick this up and say, “I’ll give myself two weeks.” I think the best idea is to read it a chapter a day, which means, give yourself months. Read it while you’re reading other things. The faster you read, the more you’ll miss. And if you miss the wordplay and fascinating sentence construction, you’ve missed 95% of what’s good about it.
- Underline sentences that you’ll copy by hand later, and you’ll improve your ability to write a good sentence.
- Remember that it’s funny. It’s best read in a playful state of mind.
- There’s a lot of wisdom in this novel. Melville’s love and fascination for humans is apparent, and looking for it enhances the reading experience. It’s a spiritual text, delving into the deepest questions of why our lives are the way they are, who’s running things, and what motivates humans to do the things that they do.
- Trust the form. I’m not going to lie and say that this book is never tedious. It’s a book about whaling, and in many ways recreates both the boredom and excitement of being at sea. The form is useful because it makes reading the book a meditative practice. You’ll need to concentrate as hard as if you’re writing, and trust me, anything that builds concentration is handy for writers, especially writers of longer works.
Four years ago, I introduced you to Rachel Levy. Now she has a novel available for preorder at Caketrain. Way to go, Rachel!
The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist. And the novels that interest the novelist are those that have not already been written. They are those that put the greatest demands on him, that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and his talents, and to be true to the particularities of his own vocation.
~Flannery O’Connor, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction.”
From the introduction of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis” by Thomas J. Sugrue:
No one social program or policy, no single force, whether housing segregation, social welfare programs, or deindustrialization, could have driven Detroit and other cities like it from their positions of economic and political dominance; there is no single explanation for the inequality and marginality that beset the urban poor. It is only through the complex and interwoven histories of race, residence, and work in the postwar era that the state of today’s cities and their impoverished residents can be fully understood and confronted.
Economic and racial inequality constrain individual family choices. They set the limits of human agency. Within the bounds of the possible, individuals and families resist, adapt, and succumb.
I’ve been listening to and enjoying a lot of New Yorker fiction podcasts lately. If you aren’t familiar with them, they work like this: an author who was published in the New Yorker at some point reads and discusses another author’s story, which was also published in the New Yorker at some point. Editor Deborah Treisman conducts wonderful interviews at the end of the stories. Most run about 30 minutes, which makes them great for dog walks or housework, or short commutes. For me, these have been a post-MFA staple.
I’m sharing this one, where Jennifer Egan reads Mary Gaitskill’s story, “The Other Place,” because I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m a big fan of Egan, ever since she came to Tallahassee and I heard her discuss her writing process, which was to write out the entire novel by hand on legal pads and then craft it while she typed it up. I’ve tried this. It doesn’t work for me at all, but I love the idea. Listening to her, though, makes the writing life seem “possible,” and that is always refreshing.
The story she reads forces the reader into dark and ugly spaces (surprise! if you are familiar with Gaitskill at all…), but it does so with a wild amount of understanding and compassion. Let me use the word “masterful” when I describe this story. And Egan’s insights are smart.
Here are some other stories/discussions I love:
Boyle Reading Barthelme
Erdich reading Oates
Oates reading Ozick
I made this when I was teaching students how to approach reading in a literature class that focused on the short story.
I am not usually a visual person, but more of an audio learner (charts make me queasy). That said, the essence of this “map” is that it starts by looking at the story in the broadest sense and moves down to the narrower, more detailed aspects of the story. It moves from genre to structure to language.
By posting it here, I suppose I am asking what it leaves out. Should a discussion-based literature course examine a story in a more encompassing and maybe effective way?
This is how I tend to read. How do you read? How do you teach your students to read?
I am one of the thousands of people who enjoys David Sedaris’s essays. I have followed him since The Santaland Diaries, and think he is a great example of how to be deceptively simple. He makes writing, particularly funny writing, look so easy. Also, my students [usually] love it when I assign him.
I was excited to see that today, he (or his personal Facebook assistant) posted an interview from by Jenn McKee of Ann Arbor’s local online magazine, MLive. I’m familiar with MLive (and McKee) because I went to college in Ann Arbor and later performed in at least one play she reviewed. Anyway, all of this is to say that I was super excited to stumble upon this quote:
Q. While reading “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” I was reminded of the way your essays often start in one experience or memory, but then they end up going someplace completely unexpected. Does that association between seemingly disparate experiences just happen when you sit down to write about a topic?
A. I was listening to “This American Life” over the weekend, and on Ira’s show, they really cut to the chase. The first story was … someone saying, “This guy stabbed me when I was 18.” They get right into it. When I’m sitting down to write a story, it doesn’t occur to me to begin the story like that. For one thing – I like “The Simpsons.” Unlike most sitcoms, where you think, I bet this is the one where wife loses her wedding ring, or the husband loses his job. With “The Simpsons” – you watch the first 4-5 minutes, and you have no idea where the show is going. I like that.
I was excited because I am always using the Simpsons as a teaching example when I cover story structure. No seriously, every time I teach a class. But I never heard anyone else allude to its structure this way. Made my week.