Why every writer should read Moby Dick, and some handy tips about how to enjoy getting through the whole thing.

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:

  1. 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.image1 (2)
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Underline sentences that you’ll copy by hand later, and you’ll improve your ability to write a good sentence.
  3. Remember that it’s funny.  It’s best read in a playful state of mind.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

 

Ben Marcus on Reading Like a Writer

Ben Marcus say some good, practical things here in this interview from Knopf’s “Writers on Writing” series.

I appreciate, especially, his reminder to write what we’d want to read.  It sounds so obvious, but it’s easy to get bogged down with irrelevant /tension-killing information while we’re in the middle of a paragraph. It’s more than just thinking about communicating to an audience when we write; it’s about choosing phrases that captivate, challenge, and entertain appropriately according to the moment we’re writing.

Marcus also draws our attention to the fact that those of us who learned to write in college/university workshops are used to having audiences that must finish our work. I’m glad he mentioned this, because I am teaching a summer college workshop at the moment and I think it’s good to keep in mind what school-habits my curriculum formulates and propels.  I’m teaching seniors, so they are about to go into the world and adjust to writing outside of the classroom.

Marcus reminded me to think about what happens when my audience becomes someone that doesn’t really like to read that much, but thought my book sounded interesting so they read the first paragraph in the bookstore?  Or before that, I’m going to have to get that first paragraph (and entire book) past an agent and hopefully editor.  The solution? I stated it yesterday but I’ll state it this way today: Learn to recognize what it is I’m reading, how it impacts me, what it can teach me about writing.

Books are the best teachers.