A few weeks back I wrote a post on why you should read books you hate. At the end, I challenged you to read a book you really don’t want to read, and to let me know how the experience was and your impressions of the book.
I chose to read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick because 1) it looked like the most boring book in the world, 2) I dislike animal books, 3) as a rule I can’t stand nineteenth-century American writers, and 4) I know nothing about the sea, boats, and whaling, so I was sure I wouldn’t understand a thing.
Here’s my report on reading the book and why I think we should all get out of our reading comfort zones more often, forcing ourselves to read books we swore we’d never touch.
Moby-Dick is a classic example of nineteenth-century fiction
Wow, Melville can pack a lot into his sentences.
Mostly because they’re really long.
But seriously, if you take a deep breath and just read, you will fall into the rhythm of the prose and understand everything.
Most classic nineteenth-century writers knew their punctuation cold, so it’s pretty easy to follow even the longest sentences. Granted, punctuation has changed, and so have some of the rules of writing. However, if done right, it doesn’t matter which century you’re in; you’ll understand an excellent writer no matter what.
When you open up Moby-Dick, you’ll find paragraphs that span several pages. In fact, most writers up to the nineteenth century wrote lengthy novels with what my husband and I refer to as “Teutonic sentence structure.” It takes a bit longer to recognize the greatness of these books – especially for those of us in the twenty-first century – but the effort is well worth it. Melville’s prose is splendid, and his descriptions are as clear as a photograph.
It wins first prize for most description per square inch
Speaking of which, I’ve noticed that most of the classics are filled with pages and pages of description. Moby-Dick, for one, has chapters of nothing but description and explanation of terms. In fact, we are almost halfway through Moby-Dick before the least bit of real action happens. Sometimes I felt like saying, “For crying out loud, Herman, just get on with it!”
But by then our pump has been primed, and we’re both ready and armed with enough knowledge to “get” the action and understand why it makes sense. Melville’s lengthy descriptions have set us up for understanding the psychology behind Captain Ahab and the rest of the crew of the Pequod, and their relationship to the white sperm whale (i.e., Moby-Dick) and to each other. He describes each main character in excruciating detail, but when he writes about their innermost thoughts later in the book, it is much easier to understand their thought processes. All the more so when push comes to shove and they’re fighting the whale; it feels realistic.
Furthermore, it would have been difficult to believe Captain Ahab’s obsession with killing the white whale, and his crew’s acquiescence to putting their lives in danger to achieve this goal, if we hadn’t had these full descriptions of the book’s major players as well as some treatment of the minor characters.
It puts our short attention spans and need for instant gratification to shame
It’s a pity we live in a world where instant gratification is king – and our attention spans reflect this. For example, all (and I mean all) the advice I’ve read about blogging and content marketing says to make both your sentences and your paragraphs short nowadays, with lots of white space and graphics or photographs. My own blog is a good example of this.
Another failing of contemporary literature is that more things are assumed. In general, characters aren’t drawn as sharply as earlier writers drew them. I often find myself wondering why a certain character would act in a particular way; according to his or her initial, short description, it makes no sense.
It encourages quality writing
Today’s readers won’t wait for many and lengthy chapters until the “action” happens. It must begin already on the first page. Isn’t that what all writing teachers say? Heck, even I’ve said it.
There is value in getting into the heart of a book right away, but we have to compensate for streamlined description and immediate action with more powerful, impactful writing. For instance, dialogue is a great way to impart character traits. So too, describing a character’s dress and appearance while simultaneously reporting action. Analogy, metaphor, and simile can help as well. For instance:
- They call my father Mount Vesuvius because of his terrible temper.
- The hostility [was] burning off her like heat off a sun-baked tarmac road. (Sophie Kinsella)
- The smell in the kitchen was reminiscent of the fallout after a nuclear attack.
- She’s as kind as Mother Theresa.
All of these are description shorthand for the modern reader and writer.
It is filled with symbolism and subtlety
There isn’t a lot of symbolism in modern literature. One of the few contemporary authors who imbues his books with symbolism is John Irving. (Let me know in the Comments if you can name anyone else.) Sometimes when symbolism appears in modern novels it’s forced, way too dramatic, or shoved down readers’ throats.
In Moby-Dick, however, symbolism is alive and well, but thankfully not in your face. Here are a few examples:
- Captain Ahab’s fake leg – made to replace the one cut off by Moby-Dick – is made from the jaw of a sperm whale. Moby-Dick is part of him, he has thereby become part animal.
- Holes are cut into the ship’s deck so Captain Ahab can insert his fake leg into them and remain standing. Not only is he part animal, he’s part of the ship. (He’s also compared to the mast of a ship.)
- There is Christian symbolism with regard to Captain Ahab: “Moody, stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” Later, he is compared to a king.
The whale itself, of course, is symbolic of evil and ridding oneself of it, of conquering one’s fears, of man’s conquering nature. Yet Moby-Dick is white, which Melville himself associates with majesty:
Most famous in our Western annals and Indian traditions is that of the White Steed of the Prairies; a magnificent mild-white charger…. he was the object of trembling reverence and awe…. it was his spiritual whiteness chiefly, which so clothed him with divineness…which…at the same time enforced a certain nameless terror.
If you notice, all of the symbolism I’ve cited is subtle – another quality of nineteenth century and earlier literature. So is the humor. With few exceptions, humor in the classics is neither raw, slapstick, nor spelled out. I found myself thinking, “Wow, even in those days they knew how to make jokes.”
Melville has an amazing command of English
- “Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some subtler form.”
- “You cannot hide the soul.”
- “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”
- “Heaven have mercy on us all — Presbyterians and Pagans alike — for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”
- “When a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself.”
Melville is unafraid to explore touchy issues
Melville also explores black/white and Christian/heathen relations in Moby-Dick, with more Show than Tell. As an example, the non-whites are the harpooners, i.e., they are the ones who pierce the whales in order for the white men to take their lancers and go in for the kill. The harpooners live and eat separately on the boat, lower in status than the captain and his mates, but higher than the simple sailors.
Ishmael, the protagonist, becomes close friends with Queequeg, a cannibal prince. As the two men walk about the port, “people stared; not at Queequeg so much – for they were used to seeing cannibals like him in their streets – but at seeing him with me and upon such confidential terms. We heeded them not.” (Emphasis mine.)
The two men even share a bed at the beginning of the book, something I’m not sure modern literature could pull off without our thinking all sorts of…things. It is readily apparent that Melville didn’t craft this scene for gratuitous purposes. The relative innocence of the nineteenth century allowed for deep exploration of friendship in a way I’m not sure could happen in our time.
Melville experiments with different types of writing
Modern novels do not have the monopoly on “experimental” novels. Melville, too, employs different methods to tell his story. He uses narrative most of the time, but occasionally he’ll switch to what can only be called the script of a play. At other times he tells us what different characters are thinking, in first person. Some of his chapters are extremely long and description-heavy, while others are barely two pages.
I found this fascinating, as I had the mistaken impression that nineteenth-century writers stick to rigid rules of fiction (whatever they are). Instead, Melville was all over the place, but it worked.
Now I’d like to hear from you! Which book did you read, and why? What did you learn from reading a book you “hate”? Was the experience worthwhile?
Let me know in the Comments how you did. I look forward to reading your thoughts and insights.