Herman Melville

One of the joys of a long marriage is that there are plenty of topics of conversation that we have covered in the past often enough that we know what the other is about to say. We have little in jokes about topics that mean little to others yet to us are signs that we know each other. In general, I dd not take advantage of high school in the ways that Susan did. She was a good student in high school and took advanced placement classes, graduating near the top of her class in a large urban high school. I learned to become a good student, but mostly after high school. In many ways I did the bare minimum to get by, earning average grades and leaving high school at the end of my junior year. As a result it surprised me to learn that she never read the book Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

I have teased her for years that her education cannot be complete until she reads the novel. She, of course, knows the general plot of the novel. Captain Ahab goes on the search for revenge against a great whale that he believes is responsible for his having lost his foot. The story is narrated by a sailor named Ishmael. She doesn’t see the need to read a novel that was published in 1851, at the height of the US whaling industry and a century before she was born. I was surprised to learn that she wasn’t required to read the book, which was a part of what I considered to be the catalogue of books that all high school students read. I actually hadn’t minded reading the book that much.

The novel is a very complex book. Melville draws on complex areas of human study including zoology, astronomy, law, economics, mythology, philosophy and teachings from a wide range of different religious and cultural traditions. Melville himself having served as a sailor on whaling ships had a wide interest in other human ventures. At one point Ishmael quotes Plato and expounds on the history of philosophy. The book has a unique writing style as well as its subject matter. In one monologue, Ahab challenges Moby Dick in Shakespearean style: “Towards thee I roll, though all destroying, but unconquering whale. To the last I grapple with thee. From hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” Another chapter is written as the script of a play. The ship’s crew is multi-ethnic with African and Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese and Tahitian sailors on a ship based in Nantucket in the United States.

Of course, Susan is a well-educated woman who continues to read extensively. She can converse intelligently on a wide range of subjects and though I don’t admit it to her, she probably does not need to read the novel, which can be boring at times. So much has been written about the book that she already has sufficient knowledge of it and its ideas.

Still, it has been a fun, recurring conversation between the two of us.

Then, last week, sorting through the shelves and boxes of books that have adorned our home for decades, I came across a box of books that I had brought home from my mother’s cabin. Among the books were additional novels by Melville: White Jacket, Typee, Bartelby the Scrivener, Benito Cereno and Billy Bud. I have not read any of them. Our task is sorting. We have committed ourselves to the discipline of moving only a small fraction of the books we own. I’ve already donated eight boxes of books and expect to shed even more before moving day. It should be easy for me to place a small collection of paperback novels tin a box to go to the mission. Strangely, however, those books have gone in and out of the box to give away three or four times in the past few days. Right now they are sitting on the corner of my desk, but there is a space just right to receive the books in a box ready to be taken with other items to be given away.

There is no problem with giving away any of the books in our collection. Our son is a librarian. We have access to any books we want. I am becoming accomplished at finding books to read on my tablet computer and I have a list of books that I want to read that is much longer than the rest of my life. If I want to read any of these Melville novels, I can easily access them through the library. I don’t have to remember their titles. Melville is famous and he was a prolific author. He wrote 11 novels, 17 short stories. He published five collections of poetry and numerous articles in magazines that there still available on the Internet. I could devote a year to reading Melville, but I know I will not.

The books, however, hold much more potential for fun for me. One idea that came to mind that I won’t pursue now that I am writing it in my journal which Susan reads, is to pack them away and wrap one book at a time and give it to her for her birthday for several years to come. It would allow the extension of the joke and provide more laughter and good natured conversation for us in years to come. Probably the joke would become old before the books were given. More likely I would forget where I put the books and not be able to find them when here birthday rolls around.

I suspect that I may one day read more of Melville. Frankly, I think I’d like to pick up a book of his poems rather than another novel. I have a sense of his style as a novelist and wonder about his poetry. Does he experiment with style in poetry as freely as he does in the novel? There is one short story, however, that I suspect I will never read. It is titled, “The Paradise of Bachelors.” I’m enjoying the paradise of married life far too much to have any interest in the life of a bachelor.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!