Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Of course, I had to say something...

According to the local Affable Unaffectable, Steve Urbon, the Massachusetts legislature is considering a petition from Pittsfield MA 5th Grade students who want Herman Melville's Moby Dick named State Book . Today's paper has a somewhat more terse David Kibbe follow-up.
Urbon finds it worth mentioning that the 5th graders in Pittsfield have never read Moby-Dick. I find it amusing that both S-T authors mention other "Official State" things ("state glee club song"?), but don't mention the Official Vessel of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, New Bedford-berthed Ernestina.
Hell, everybody finds it amusing that nobody has read Moby-Dick. In fact, depending on the need to suck up or be part of the crowd, many people are proud of never having read Moby-Dick, often loudly insisting that they never. Strangely, though, everyone knows it's about some kind of albino cetacean, the first line is something like "Call me Ishmael," and has some pirate captain guy with a peg leg.
Even the 5th Grade teacher insists she has only "read parts of it." I was at a function Sunday night where Representative Barney Frank joked that he had never read it.
Well, I've seen him read it. Certainly not the whole thing, but every year at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Moby-Dick Marathon ("25 Hours of Dick"), Barney reads a few paragraphs. Come on! Why pretend you're illiterate and uneducated? So the tough kids won't beat you up? Get your head out of your gym locker. You got out of high school 40 years ago. I know that the Moby-Dick joke is universal, it just seems uglier here in the town that Melville so singularly praised.

Every boat I've ever been on has had a box or a bookshelf, a bag or a chest with books: some ratty dog-eared paperbacks of dubious literary merit and copies of Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby-Dick. There's Stephen King and Louis L'Amour... I even caught up with nearly a decade of SpiderMan on one delivery. Damn, no wonder knot-tying and scrimshaw aren't popular with sailors anymore. Literacy really screwed the marlingspike arts.
And I did read Moby-Dick. Of course, I read parts of it in high school, along with the Aeneid and Catch-22. I often pulled it out to read on deck. Or trying to get to sleep in the morning when I was working nights. Or, at work when I was working nights. I read it a total of, I think, eight times. And I read portions of it at the aforementioned
"25 Hours of Dick." I directed a minister, an eight year-old, a puppeteer, and a drummer in a staged reading of one of the chapters.
It is, though, by all accounts, a great book. Because everybody says so. Although it's not as long as everybody thinks. My version is 521 pages. Not a huge "leviathan" by anyone's measure. The first two installments of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian (Master and Commander and Post Captain) are 907. Yes, some parts are better than others. Yes, it's academic and encyclopedic. But aren't you brave enough? Curious enough? Intellectually adventurous? The preachy sermonizing and archaic speechifying is character-driven, and makes the characters vivid, real, and complex; the boring-ass boring parts are there to make you appreciate the exciting and edifying parts.
Kind of like life.

No comments: