Call Me Ishmael

Moby-Dick

November 14, 1851: Moby-Dick is published in New York. It is 635 pages. The previous month, a censored version of the novel had been published in London. It was in three volumes and titled The Whale.

November is a good month to read the novel. It’s an anniversary and it is the month the story begins.

You don’t have to read the whole novel. How about one chapter?

  • Chapter 9: The Sermon. Father Mapple delivers a sermon to a congregation of sailors, sailors’ wives, and widows in the New Bedford Whalers’ Chapel. Ishmael and Queequeg are there. Mapple reads a hymn about Jonah – that Biblical character who was swallowed by a hat else?] a WHALE:
  • Chapter 28: Ahab. This is the Captain’s first appearance after 27 chapters. The crew hadn’t seen him yet either. He doesn’t speak here.
  • Chapter 30: The Pipe is only a page long.
  • Chapter 32- Cetology Some people suggest you skip the interchapter. I have read the book cover to cover and also read just the interchapters cover to cover. I like all the whale and whaling knowledge.
  • Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle. The mythology of the sailor through ones from different lands and cultures.
  • Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale
  • Chapter 54: The Town-Ho’s Story  Melville tells a different story and foreshadows the end of his novel.
  • Chapter 70 – The Sphinx
  • Chapter 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish
  • Chapter 114- The Glider
  • Chapter 125: The Log and the Line. Ahab and his cabin boy understand each other. Because they are both crazy.

Maybe you should just open the book at random and read that chapter.

Moby-Dick continues to be a novel that everyone has heard of and can give you a 25-word book report even if they never read it.

If you’re not going to pick up the novel, at least read the opening passage.

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”

I took to the sea this month. I visited a friend who lives a very short walk from the Atlantic Ocean because it was “a damp, drizzly November in my soul” and I didn’t want to start “knocking people’s hats off.” I didn’t take to the ship. I was still a landlubber but I was there.

 

Writing About Writing

There are almost as many books about writing as there are writers who have published books. Well, maybe not quite that many books on writing but there are a lot of them.

Here are three that are on my shelf.

Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books. Obviously, he knows how to write what sells, but does that mean he can tell you how to write? I had my doubts when someone recommended and handed this book to me. It very pleasantly surprised me.

There are real insights into the creative process. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has some of his life story mixed in with what he has learned. I like the section on his editing process. It also has a good reading list if you want to go deeper.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (also available as an audiobook) is also about writing and about being a writer. The two things are inextricably connected.

Readers of the book often say they like her acceptance of “sh@#ty first drafts” in order to get to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” This book is often humorous but it takes writing very seriously.

I read the book first 25 years ago after having been writing for much longer but still not allowing myself to feel like I was a Writer.

The odd title is explained in this way: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

That is good general advice about doing many things – weeding the garden, cleaning out the garage, hiking a long trail, writing a poem.

If a more stern approach is needed to get you writing, then On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction might be a better choice. Non-fiction is sometimes viewed as “more serious” than fiction or poetry. That is not true, but William Zinsser’s approach is more instruction manual. It is rarely funny – even in a chapter about writing humor. (I discovered in a college course on humor that humor is not comedy and often not funny in the sense of laughter.

I’m making this book sound too stern. Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher and all three show in the book. He began as a newspaper writer, went on to magazines and has written books on baseball, music, travel, and those and other genres are covered, including people, places, science, technology, business, sports, the arts and memoir.

I read this book before using it as a text in teaching a writing course. It is probably consider a classic by now, much like The Elements of Style which was standard book to have on the syllabus fifty years ago.

If there is any of the writer’s life that he mixes with writing, it might be that he feels that “clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”

The best advice to become a better writer is still two simple things: read widely and often, especially in the genre you want to write; stop reading and start writing.

In Our Own Secret Annex

Annelies
Annelies in her school photograph, 1941

Anne Frank’s diary was first published in English in 1952 and is known as Diary of a Young Girl. The first edition was first published in Dutch in 1947, under the title Het Achterhuis. which is translated as “the house behind,” “the annex” or “the secret annex.”

I read the book when I was between 13 and 14 which was the same age that she was writing it. It was only recently that I discovered that Anne Frank had two versions of her story.  The first version is her spontaneous journal entries. The second version is a revised version by Anne herself started when she was thinking about her writing being published.

I did the same thing myself in my own teenaged-years journals. I changed how I wrote though my initial idea of “publication” was it being found by my family and then later by a wife or my children. At 13, I know even thought about being a famous writer one day and having my biographers reading it.

I also think that we all have our secret annexes where we sometimes hide. And some of us write there and write about there.

Anne was her nickname. Annelies was her birth name. I like that name better than Anne.  Annelies Marie Frank was born June 12, 1929, and when I saw her birthday on the almanac last Saturday I decided to get a copy of that revised diary if I can and (re)read it this week.

We know that after the war, Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was given the diary, along with some other papers, which had been left behind when the family was taken to concentration camps in 1944.

He said that at first, he couldn’t bear to read it. When he finally read it, he believed that Anne wrote it with the intent of trying to publish it one day and he worked at getting it into print. We know he edited it himself combining parts of the two versions together.

Though it is a perennially read book, 16 American publishers rejected the English translation before Doubleday picked it up in 1952.

There are now a number of newer editions with parts restored and annotated versions.

At 13, I think I had a crush on Annalies. It may have been that I wanted to save her. Anne probably died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. To add to that sadness, it was about two weeks before the camps were liberated in spring 1945.

I wrote on another blog about a poem by Andrew Motion (“Anne Frank Huis“) that was written immediately after his visit to the Anne Frank museum/house (huis) in Amsterdam. I finally got to Amsterdam in 2019 and I had mixed feeling about visiting the Secret Annex. I read online that it is very small and very spare. It didn’t feel like it would be similar to when I visited writers’ homes before. It felt like it would be sad. The poem set me thinking about how houses are “haunted” by those who lived in them. Not in a ghost or poltergeist way, but supernatural in the dictionary sense of “relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe.”

It turned out that we couldn’t get tickets for the time that we would be there, so the universe decided for me. My wife and I did walk by the place. They call it a house but they lived in rooms above her father’s place of business attached to a warehouse. The front doors were painted a very somber black. I think Annalies would prefer that we read the words she wanted us to read rather than visit a place she never wanted to be.

ane frank house door

Looking for Dog-eared Pages

dog-ear page
Dog-ear (and marginalia) in my copy of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets – The Dry Salvages that I must have folded back in college.

The turned-down corner of a page is known as a dog-ear. The term comes from the idea that the ears of many breeds of dogs flap over and that you can often sense a dog’s mood based on whether or not its ears are forward, upright, or back.

The practice of dog-earing a book page is generally frowned upon by people who want to preserve books and by librarians when you’re doing it to their collections. Reference books often have dog-ears.

I first discovered dogears on library books and I wondered what was on that page that someone wanted to mark. This was especially interesting to me when I was reading fiction. Was it simply a bookmaker of where they left off reading? Probably not, since there were multiple dog-ears and you could undo a fold as you read further to be less damaging. So, what was on that page? Was it a great passage? Maybe it was a sexy part of the novel.

One dog-earring reader has written that:

“Dog-eared pages are a sign of love, the physical manifestation of the connection between the reader and his book. Leaving a dog-ear on a book you’re reading is like kissing your partner goodbye. It’s a promise to return and continue the romance. And that’s not a shameful thing.”

Dog-earing other people’s books is not right but I do it to my own books. I don’t usually do it as a bookmark. It’s easy enough to grab a scrap of paper nearby for that. For me, it is to mark a page I might want to return to later. I see them in poetry books marking my favorite poems. I used to put pencil marks on the table of contents but that seems even more of mistreatment.

When I find them made by previous readers, I don’t think vandalism. I think of it as a less-damaging marginalia note to future readers, a sign of a deep reader paying attention to the text.

I’m not a big fan of reading on screens but I do have a tablet and I know that Kindles and such allow for highlighting and marking and in some cases, you can see those left by other readers. These do no damage. But in the same way that I still like to hold a book in my hands, I like to see the folded page corner.

Dog-ears can range in size just as real dog’s ears vary in size. The tip of the page is standardized, but I have seen a quarter or half a page folder over. That seems extreme, though someone showed me once how they fold so that the point directs attention to a particular line. I only half fold magazine pages as a progress marker knowing the magazine will end up recycled anyway.

Multiple dog-eared pages (especially on successive pages) can make a whole section of the book bulge even when viewed from the side. This leads me to a tributary of the dog-ear – the broken spine.

books

A broken spine, caused by folding back the entire open book, is real damage. A librarian friend told me that it often happens in books that patrons flatten in order to make a photocopy. This is not a good practice but I know that in my youth I would sometimes hold open in my palm a copy of something like Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and that spy in the house of love, Anais Nin, in the library to see where the pages had been (if not dog-eared) opened intensely. It wasn’t always the “dirty parts.”

In Nin’s writing, I find: “When he first stepped out of the car and walked towards the door where I stood waiting, I saw a man I liked. In his writing, he is flamboyant, virile, animal, magnificent. He’s a man whom life makes drunk, I thought. He is like me.”

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it might open up to: “Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange trills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite, exquisite and melting her all molten inside. It was like bells rippling up and up to culmination. She lay unconscious of the wild little cries she uttered at the last. But it was over too soon, too soon, and she could no longer force her own conclusion with her own activity. This was different, different. She could do nothing.”

When I borrowed a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’s not particularly erotic novel, Middlesex, it opened to: “So that was our love affair. Wordless, blinkered, a nighttime thing, a dream thing. There were reasons on my side for this as well. Whatever it was that I was best revealed slowly, in flattering light. Which meant not much light at all. Besides, that’s the way it goes in adolescence. You try things out in the dark. You get drunk or stoned and extemporize. Think back to your backseats, your pup tents, your beach bonfire parties. Did you ever find yourself, without admitting it, tangled up with your best friend? Or in a dorm room bed with two people instead of one, while Bach played on the chintzy stereo, orchestrating the fugue? It’s a kind of fugue state, anyway, early sex. Before the routine sets in, or the love. Back when the groping is largely anonymous. Sandbox sex. It starts in the teens and lasts until twenty or twenty-one. It’s all about learning to share. It’s about sharing your toys.”

please commentDo you dog-ear books. If so, why?
Do you look for dog-ears in borrowed books?
Have you discovered a passage, book, or author from a dog-eared page?

Sailing Again on the Pequod

Melville

Readers return to Moby-Dick year after year. I return to it in some form of reading every year. Often at the end of the year. This December, I have turned to it again, but in 2020 I think I can only handle selected chapters. (Feel free to guess at which chapters I will revisit.) The full voyage is too much for me this year.

When Melville’s father died in 1832, he lost his financial security. He tried being a teacher (school-master) and clerking (“I prefer not to.”), but it wasn’t for him and they didn’t pay very well.

In 1840 he signed up on the whaler, Acushnet, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He was just 21. He lasted two years before the mast and then he deserted the ship he was on. He got several novels from his days at sea and on the exotic islands after he jumped ship.

Published in 1851, Captain Ahab and his monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale is mythic grandeur, poetic, and very symbolic.

The novel’s narrator, Ishmael, is our guide and the filtered lens that we view Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck and the others.

One year, I only reread the “inter-chapters” of the natural history of whales. That reading is far less existential.

Melville knew he was taking on very big themes in the novel. His first publisher in England of Moby-Dick, or, The Whale hoped that good readers would find in it not only an adventure story but also “a pregnant allegory to illustrate nothing less than the mystery of human life.”

An episode of the program Open Source with Christopher Lydon this year reminds us that “For a century now, Moby-Dick has been read as something like American Scripture, surely our greatest novel. It gets read as a complex mirror of the age before the Civil War but also of a nation’s fate for all time.”

Why read Moby-Dick? Like the tales of King Arthur, different ages find different things in the story and characters.  What can a story from the mid-1800s tell us about our own reality?

A book is a mirror. If a fool looks into it, you can’t expect a genius to look back. The mirror and the book don’t change, but the person gazing into it does and that changes what you see in yourself and the background where you stand.

The novel has been studied and analyzed as a psychological study, philosophical treatise, a story of whaling, a romance, a sea adventure full of eccentric characters, a symbolic allegory, and a drama of heroic conflict.

On the program, they look at the novel as a “textbook on tyranny, as eco-warning, as queer fiction, as a meditation on race, as American magic and American tragedy.”

They walk the novel through American history:

“Before the Civil War, when Melville wrote Moby-Dick, you saw shadows of slavery on a free society.

In World War One, it was about merchant empires crashing.

In the Cold War reading, it was free Ishmael against Ahab’s dictatorship.

In Eco Time, it’s about a war on nature, at sea.

In Obama time, it was about Queequeg, the noble stranger.

Moby-Dick attacks

In Trump time, it’s about Ahab’s rage and his grip on the crew, his base.”

And in this pandemic and politics year that may well be the strangest of our lifetime, what will I find when I set sail once again on the Pequod?

This time, I am setting sail with an audiobook version of the novel. There are so many editions of Moby-Dick (print and audio) that I could pick a new one every year and not run out in this lifetime.

Is Moby-Dick my favorite novel? In Elizabeth Hardwick’s words, it is“the greatest novel in American literature.” Is Citizen Kane my favorite film? It is often called “the best American film ever.” I answer No to the favorite question, but they are both great works that I have gone to multiple times as a reader and viewer.

audiobook


Go Deeper
The Moby-Dick Big Read

Was There a Real Moby Dick? from the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Best Book of 1947: Call Me Ishmael by Charles Olson

Crossing Paths With Books

little book library

On a walk this past week, I came across one of the Little Free Library boxes that you may have seen in your own neighborhood.

I can’t throw away a book. It feels the same as burning a book. I give books to friends and to the library and used book sales. I even sell some of my better or rarer books on Amazon or eBay. But some places don’t even want your used books for free because they have so many and there isn’t a market for them.

Back in 2003, I discovered BookCrossing and created an account.  The idea of that website is that you register a book and then set it free into the world with a note and hopefully someone finds it, reads it, and goes to the site to “journal” their review and then sends it back into the world. I learned about it in 2003 when I found a book that had a note in it with instructions about how to journal about it. I registered for an account and set free a few of my own books.

I hadn’t checked into my account for a few months and the last time I did there hadn’t been any new activity. That was disappointing.  I like reading the little posts by people who find the books and take the time to log in and post. I assume that most of my books have been found but that the finder never bothered to go to the website. Looking today at the site, I checked on a few books that were found to see if they traveled any further.

I “released” (the site’s term) The Reader by Bernhard Schlink back in 2006 when I was at a Dodge Poetry Festival at Waterloo Village in Stanhope, New Jersey USA. As I noted then, this was a strange book that I started, gave up on, and then found the audiobook in my library and listened to the whole novel.  It’s a short book about sex, love, reading, and shame in postwar Germany. A 15-year-old boy has a long, obsessive affair with an older woman. Encountering her again after she had disappeared from his life, he finds she is a defendant in a trial related to Germany’s Nazi past, and it soon becomes clear that she is guilty of an unspeakable crime. (It was made into a film starring Kate Winslet.)

My copy of it was found at that festival and the finder did journal about it:

“I read this book several years ago and found it very arresting, but, as is the way with books, it had become somewhat misty in my mind, so when I saw it at the Dodge Poetry Festival, I decided to reread it. I think I like it even better than I did initially. It starts slowly, in an odd chance encounter, startles with a very strange adolescent situation, then opens into some of the hugest issues of our time. I’m disappointed this specific book doesn’t have a longer history on Book Crossing than I’m seeing here! It deserves to be read and reread. I’ll try to send it on to a more distant place than New Jersey.”

In February 2007, someone found it on the shelf at Mary Jacobs Library in Bridgewater, New Jersey and they put it on “an Oprah’s Picks display. ” It was unclear to me if this was a free book display or if the book had become part of the library collection.

Then, in May of that year, someone posted that they “Haven’t read the book yet… just excited to see where it has been.”  And as far as we know, the book is still “in the wild.”

I released a copy of Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code at a friend’s beach house back in 2005.  This is a novel that I liked because it was a fast read with short chapters with pretty much a cliffhanger in every one. I am a sucker for this kind of puzzle, intrigue, history, conspiracy, spirituality blend.

I left it on the bookshelf at my friend Steve’s upstairs apartment in Seaside Park, New Jersey which is a summer rental property.  The following year it was “caught”in from Tempe, Arizona with the note “found book in a car wash, waiting for wash, started reading, quite interesting find and book, thanks. DB.” That traveling can be easily explained as Steve was living during the winter back then in Arizona and I guess he left the copy at the car wash. And from there…?

At an earlier Dodge Poetry Festival in 2004 that was held at Duke Farms Somerville, New Jersey, I left another book that I thought might be picked up.

The Virgin Suicides was a title I first encountered as a film. It was the first and a very good debut as a director for Sofia Coppola. I bought the book after I saw the film. It is a portrait of a suburban family with five sisters in the 1970’s.

It’s a first novel by Jeffrey Eugenides and it is also a coming-of-age novel (those two things often go together) and I’m a sucker for both. The book & film work well together, though I didn’t find either as shocking as the cover and movie posters proclaimed. I would say it is more black comedy than anything shocking. Of course, the book’s title sets you up for thinking the book is about suicides. No spoilers here.

An anonymous person who found the book journaled a year later that:

This book was sitting on a folding chair at the Dodge Poetry Festival in October 2004, and yet I did not get to this site to make this entry until now, because I didn’t know anything about BookCrossing. (Now I do.) The book lay on the folding chair for quite some time, unclaimed. People glanced at it, but skirted it, as if they were respecting that it might be someone’s property. The poetry reading began, the chairs filled, and I wanted a place to sit down. I hesitated, because I thought it might be “saving” the seat. But then I sat down, holding the book on my lap, in case the owner came to claim it. No one did. I enjoyed the poetry reading a great deal. Then opened the book, as I was about to leave, because of the note taped to the cover. I saw that, strangely enough, the book was meant to be taken, and so I carried along with me.

A month later anonymous posted again with this very interesting journal entry:

I’m sorry I waited a whole year to read this book. This is one of the best “first books” I’ve read in a while. About the Lisbons, a troubled family of five sisters in a Detroit suburb. The first thing that struck me, aside from the wonderful writing, is the voice. This book is told in the first-person plural (as “we”), in the collective voices of the boys who were watching the Lisbon sisters growing up. First time I’ve seen this since Faulkner’s story, “A Rose for Emily,” which is also told by a sort of Greek chorus of townspeople, witnessing death, sex and tragedy from the outside.

I am going to pass this on through PaperBackSwap.com. There’s a waiting list for the book, so I’m sure it will be out traveling into the world again in just a few days.

And then, she (for some reason, to me, anonymous is a woman) sent the book on October 08, 2005 via PaperBackSwap.com, to New Hampshire.

I like to think it is still being read and passed along. But I do wish someone would update the book on the website. I do have to say that I like knowing about the secret life of my books that I have sent out into the world.

Some of my released books have no entries. Were they found? Were they read? Might they have been thrown away?

I have also found a few Bookcrossing books released by others. I found a copy of Wally Lamb’s big novel,  I Know This Much is True. It is a long novel (almost 900 pages) and full of difficult stuff about a brother caring for his disturbed twin brother. I re-released that book 16 years ago but no further entries.

Check the map of Little Free Library locations, and perhaps
build and register your own.

Register at Bookcrossing and set some books free!

Maybe I will try paperbackswap.com too.

Bookcrossing label
The kind of label you might find inside a released book.