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Call me Ishmael, and don't snicker. I know what you're thinking here. How can I say that a big unwieldy book that can't decide what it's about for most of its length and, at any rate, tells a familiar story had any impact on my life, especially when it was something I read because it was assigned in a course I was taking (meaning I HAD to read it)?  I have a feeling I'm going to tell you more about myself than I should here, but doesn't everyone who writes one of these do that?  It's either that or tell you how to make a watch when all you did was ask me the time, and I'm probably going to do some of that too, but whatever.

Moby Dick Kent

Let's just say it set me on the career path I followed 28 years after I read it.  When I had to figure a few things out about what to do next, remembering the experience of reading it confirmed what I wanted to do, and did.  Explanations below.

I read Moby-Dick during the fall semester of my sophomore year at Cornell.  What do you really need to know about that? I had pretty much finished my distribution requirements, I was catching up on the social sciences I didn't know much about (economics - macro and sociology), finishing my prereqs (the history of political philosophy) for a Government major and taking an English course for non-majors (that was a serious mistake), and, since I was also considering a History major, taking a history course.  

Not any history course, you understand. 19th Century Cultural and Intellectual History of the United States, with David Brion Davis (and Ken Dryden, but that's an entirely different story). It was the only class I was taking that I wasn't taking with somebody I already knew, but then, I had done that with the upper-level course on Black Politics I had taken the previous spring.  I grew up as the only child of an only child (my mother) and an estranged child (my father, but he had done that to himself, and I'm not cutting him any slack for it).  I turned 19 that semester, and I think I had to read Moby-Dick about two weeks after my birthday.

It's safe to say that I wasn't sure who I was at that point.  I certainly wasn't out yet, but, more to the point, I hadn't acted on anything that would suggest I even think about it yet. I thought if I tried hard enough, I could make heterosexuality work for me (and I sort of did the following year, but it obviously didn't take). I didn't have any idea what I was going to do about a career either -- there was always advertising if nothing else came to mind. Something told me I shouldn't go into the law, and I don't regret that all these years later.

(Uris Library, the undergraduate library at Cornell, looking up from Library Slope, courtesy

So I was just trying out the life of the mind when I told my friends that Saturday morning, as we walked to the undergraduate library, I would be in the smoking room on the fourth floor (a room very few people went to) reading, and to come get me for lunch. I sat down at I think 10 AM, and opened the book, and I read. They came to get me for lunch, and I brought the book with me, and kept reading.  They came to get me for dinner, and I brought the book with me, and I kept reading. I think I finished around 11 PM.  Yes, I read Moby-Dick in one sitting.  I had to: it was that compelling, and I was that fascinated.

I guess I should say something about the book, and about the author, now.  Herman Melville was, in great part, writing about what he knew. In 1840, at the age of 21, he had signed on as an ordinary seaman on the whaleship Acushnet and when he returned to port, he began to write.  He published Typee, about the time he spent in the Marquesas Islands, in 1846, and another travel adventure, Omoo, the following year, and both sold well.  

In October 1851, The Whale was published in London, and the following month, Harper's published it in the United States as Moby-Dick. It confused its readers, which is odd, because readers were interested, VERY interested, in books on whaling in the 1850s. After all, the whaling industry was the first business enterprise in which the United States had  become top nation, and the book, while it has a plot, is really about the whaling business.

Perhaps it's stuff like this, from a chapter mid-book called "The Whiteness of the Whale"

What the White Whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.

   Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man's soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.

   Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title 'Lord of the White Elephants' above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things -- the innocence of brides, the benignity of age;

You get the idea. It just made it better for me. An adventure story, with a monomaniacal protagonist and a secret crew (if I weren't Dave in Northridge, I'd be "Fedallah") introduced in the middle of the story, a reasonably complete analysis of the business parts of a whaling ship with a detailed analysis of how the whale oil and the baleen are produced, and some wonderful philosophic writing. What could be better? It's the reason I like Thomas Pynchon's books too.

Anyhow, Moby-Dick sank like a stone in the American market, and the reason people can argue it is really the greatest American novel is the product of a Melville revival in the 1920s. I'm glad it was revived.  What the experience taught me was that there was absolutely nothing wrong with pursuing the life of the mind. It also reminded me, since I was reading it in a history class, that if I couldn't decide between a lit major (which my reaction to this book told me was not impossible after all) and a poli sci major, history would let me be both.

I didn't do especially well that semester (my only GPA under 3, in fact), but I applied myself and graduated magna cum laude in history, and then went off to Stanford for graduate work. Oh, yes.  I wasn't doing anything during the spring semester of my senior year but researching and writing an honors thesis (I had miscalculated my AP credits), so I was able to go to the Bay Area at the end of March 1971 to see the school, and I "discovered" myself in San Francisco, where I knew nobody and nobody knew me.  Majoring in History did that for me, at least now in retrospect (and thank you, Ishmael and Queequeg). The man I met a month later in Boston (we knew the first time our eyes met on the dance floor at 1270 -- not there any more) was ready for a change, so we left for Palo Alto in September 1971.  We're still a couple, and now we're married (California, June 19, 2008).

We can now fast forward 23 years (skipping disappointment with the direction history was taking at Stanford, and two decades in advertising media in Manhattan, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Manhattan again) to life in Los Angeles, doing some free-lance writing for Maine Antique Digest. For one of the articles, on a show of Pacific-Asian fine and folk art, we had to do research, which reminded me I LIKED to do research, so going back to graduate school was a no-brainer. I found myself in a class my first semester at Claremont Graduate School in a course called 19th Century Cultural and Intellectual History of the United States, taught by, coincidentally, someone who had been one of Davis's grad students when I was taking the course, but nothing registered as a rereading as much as Moby-Dick did (it was only the second time I read it, and it didn't lose any of its power). So we come full-circle. Changed my life? You bet.  

Oh, yes.  What else did I read that semester? Lots of stuff, but I can't remember 80% of it. (I'm trying to remember 43 years later, after all.) NOTHING else from the course I read Moby-Dick in; from the waste-of-time English course, D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; from the Sociology course, Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, something by Marx on alienation and something by Durkheim on anomie; from the Government course, Machiavelli, The Prince, Hobbes, Leviathan, Locke, First and Second Discourses, and Rousseau's Second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Also, Ken Dryden and I were on hello-saying terms for the remainder of that academic year, at the end of which he graduated.

11:31 AM PT: Thanks for the warm reception, R&BLers.  I'm very happy to be one of you now.

2:55 PM PT: and thanks as well, DKOMA!  My first diary for you!

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Wow. One sitting! (5+ / 0-)

    It took me well over a week.  What is with that chapter in the middle on the ship?  It's like free association, almost non-sensical.  I read that chapter and was like... what the hell was that?  Anyway, there are great passages and vivid imagery, but I found it very difficult and uneven.

  •  I absolutely love this book! (7+ / 0-)

    Even though I squirm slightly whenever I pass a Starbucks coffee house (the chief mate in the novel), I have many fond memories of the novel and its reading. I once started reading it to my son--he must have been about 7--and he quickly put a stop to that. No matter, I told him, he would pick it up himself one day and understand the wonderful journey that waits inside.

    Without hesitation I place that book in the top tier of my all-time favorites. And I would challenge anyone who hasn't read it (no matter what you have heard from others) to give it a try: it is worth the time. But maybe not in one sitting!

    Bravo, wonderful diary.

  •  And after Dryden graduated (7+ / 0-)

    He went on to win the Stanley Cup before he'd actually played his rookie season, then worked his way through law school playing goal for the Montreal Canadiens.  His memoir, The Game, is one of the best books I've ever read.

    As for Moby-Dick...I had a similar experience reading Buddenbooks.  I slammed through it in two days, and when I finally came up for air, it was with the realization that literary fiction could be a damn good story, and a damn good story could be literary.  

  •  Dick-Heads (10+ / 0-)

    A good friend of mine from Darkest Iowa had a college professor who was Melville fanatic and who instilled in her a deep dislike for the book.  She occasionally refers to Moby-Dick fans as "dick-heads".

    For a long time, Moby-Dick was one of my "traveling books":  long, meaty works that kept my brain occupied during long car and bus trips.  I loved the language of the book.  Even the long, techincal passages about the practice of whaling were rendered poeticly.  There were times when, like Fone Bone, I would read it aloud to myself, just to revel in the words.

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 06:34:27 AM PDT

    •  Moby Dick was also one of my traveling books ... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NYFM, quarkstomper, Limelite, Brecht

      ... along with Don Quixote. The former I do consider the Great American Novel, the latter is, of course, the first great modern novel. The Whale kept me transfixed during two trips to China, particularly on the 20 hour flights from North America to Asia (and back), and in my hotel rooms when I had trouble sleeping from the time zone changes. There's an essential "weird old America" vibe to it -- Hawthorne's tales also capture this -- found in many of the folk songs recorded in the field by Alan Lomax or compiled by Harry Smith.

      Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me, "how good, how good does it feel to be free? " And I answer them most mysteriously, "are birds free from the chains of the skyway? " (Bob Dylan)

      by JKTownsend on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 07:58:03 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Ah, that moonshine magic of "weird old America"; (3+ / 0-)

        Dylan too, Guthrie, Hank Williams, Walt Whitman.

        But Moby Dick is like a lucid Coleridge, with Melville spinning webs of ethereal nonsense that shouldn't even cohere, and yet are spangled with such fresh draughts of truth. An artist exploring the boundaries of his immense abilities, without showing any hesitation or doubt. Breathtaking.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 03:47:37 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Nice diary from a fellow Cornellian (5+ / 0-)

    Guess that B.A still means something, eh? I read Moby dick when I was in 8th grade and again as an undergrad and share your opinion of the book. It is for the most part that elusive 'Great American novel'.
       I think it pretty much drained Melville after that.
    And thanks for the picture of Uris, Hadn't seen it since I went back to the campus more than ten years ago

    An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

    by MichiganChet on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 06:41:13 AM PDT

    •  Thanks, Chet -- and about "drained" (6+ / 0-)

      I haven't been back in 40 years, but I thought a picture of something on the campus would be a good idea, and so it was!

      Drained is right, but then there were "Bartleby the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno" in The Piazza Tales, each of which would have made the career of a writer.

      -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 06:55:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Surely what drained Melville was painting the (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dave in Northridge, MichiganChet

        Sistine Chapel of American Literature, for critics and a reading public who were mostly too earthbound even to look up. Or it could be, as someone once said, that nothing more than 10% new ever succeeds. But Melville would have written more epics, and less dark ones, if Moby Dick had been as widely bought and read as Typee.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 03:51:47 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yes that's the point (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          He had two published novels after Moby Dick, both of which failed, and one more which was never published and which has since been lost. And Like Thomas hardy, he turned to writing poetry; unlike Hardy his were not successful. I have this private theory that when one produces a work way above one's range - when the muse sits on your head, in other words - it takes something out of you that you never get back. But then, the rest of us, and posterity is so much the richer for it.

          An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

          by MichiganChet on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 08:53:35 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  If you meet the muse, she exacts a steep price (0+ / 0-)

            but I think sometimes people produce works way beyond their range simply because that particular work has been gestating in their unconscious for decades. So, a lot of rock groups' most interesting album is their first, because those are the songs that took twenty years to write.

            Melville wrote several novels, and by so doing, mastered the basic mechanics of writing a novel. As with any large artist, much was gestating during this process. Meeting Hawthorne, getting a reader who saw things he hadn't appreciated in his own work (and also putting more Hawthornisms into Moby Dick than he'd ever used before), brought Melville to spread his wings. And, as has happened so often from Icarus on down, the winds of chance did not support such grand wings.

            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

            by Brecht on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 04:04:10 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  You have escaped Quequeg! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge, NYFM, Brecht

    (Nice diary, Dave in Northridge.)

    You must work-we all must work-for a world that is worthy of its children. - Pablo Casals. Please donate to TREE Climbers, the 501c(3) of Roxine and SwedishJewfish.

    by 2thanks on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 06:42:46 AM PDT

  •  Great diary,Dave! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    2thanks, Brecht

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  I'm impressed by the influence it had on your life. Perhaps I'll get it and read it.  You've aroused my interest!

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 08:44:19 AM PDT

  •  Moby-Dick is My Moby-Dick (4+ / 0-)

    Reading it was like wrestling with a great whale that for some inexplicable reason you're in love with.  I loved this novel when I read it as a teen-ager; I worked hard to read it -- very hard; the novel reeks of the sea and whale oil, sweat and Queequeg's, Ahab's, and Stubb's warring pipe tobacco smoke.

    This novel, like no other, makes me feel I'm at sea.  In both senses of the phrase.

    I always wanted to know who is Ishmael, really.  [This "call me" business always made me feel he's hiding his actual identity.]  And what kind of relationship did the "savage" harpooner and Ishmael have, exactly?  

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 09:00:36 AM PDT

    •  As far as I know (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Monsieur Georges, Limelite, Brecht

      My remark about Q and I was probably me reading in.  Melville was discussing 19th century homosociality (like Abraham Lincoln and his friend Joshua Steed), and here's the conclusion of Chapter X:

      How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg - a cosy, loving pair.
      Excellent group, Limelite, and I hope to contribute to it often.

      -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 10:43:25 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't know if Melville intended an undercurrent (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Monsieur Georges

        of gayness between I and Q; it seems unlikely, as he makes no play with it, he makes no use of such a current, if it's there. But I have read that it was perfectly normal in the US, in the 1700s and on into the 1800s, for two men travelling together to share a bed and think nothing of it.

        The issue does matter in your diary, though, Dave. There is such a great playfulness and love of freedom in Melville, a bit of Whitman's exulting in every atom of this marvellous life. It is a very healthy spark to inhale, feeding the freedom to think and be your entire natural self.

        Great diary, thanks.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 03:59:23 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I've actually heard (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Monsieur Georges, Brecht

          that the dedication to Nathaniel Hawthorne was actually meant to be a love letter (and it's not that hard to read that in to Hawthorne and his Mosses) but the jury is very out on that too.

          Thanks, Brecht.  I'm glad you liked it.

          -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

          by Dave in Northridge on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 05:01:22 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Sometimes men fall in love without thoughts of sex (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Dave in Northridge

            ever occurring to them. Freud and Jung did, for a while.

            I think Freud was right, that sex is everywhere; but, there is more love than sex.

            Pretty big tangent from your diary, though.

            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

            by Brecht on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 04:08:46 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Great Recommendation (1+ / 2-)
    Recommended by:
    Hidden by:
    klompendanser, Dave in Northridge

    You seem to have a very enriching life experience. Thanks for sharing with everyone. It's a little hard to understand his books, but his concepts are solid. My friend's company is about to Incorporate Online California and these concepts will be of great help.

  •  Read it twice. Loved it second time. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge, Brecht

    The first time, I was around 9 years old. (Really--I was an early reader.) I got through it, but it left me cold. I saw it as an adventure story about whaling, but less adventuresome than stories about Superman, Batman, war, or gangsters.

    The second time, I was in my mid-40s. Loved it--for reasons that other devotees will understand are both obvious and inexplicable.

    "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

    by HeyMikey on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 10:36:18 AM PDT

    •  I had the same experience with another book (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      HeyMikey, Brecht

      The other great American novel, the even more inaccessible work of William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! -- although I didn't get that until the third reading within a six month period the year after I read Moby-Dick for the first time.  I'm glad you came back to it and gladder that it rewarded you for doing so, Mikey!

      -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 10:46:52 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Faulkner's on my to-read list.... (3+ / 0-)

        ...a long, long list.

        No excuse for my not having read him already, as I was born in Mississippi and have visited family there my whole life.

        Following Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech on race, there was some great writing on Faulkner in the blogs of, IIRC, Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates. "The past isn't dead. It's not even the past."

        "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

        by HeyMikey on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 10:50:48 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  When Melville says the brain of a whale is larger (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge, Brecht

    than a human's brain, suddeny I realized what he was getting at.

    The larger cetaceans, he's implying, possess a vast intelligence and therefore can't merely be hunted as animals. We as an intelligent species must share the world with them, not hunt them for their oil and blubber.

    "Mistress of the Topaz" is now available in paperback! Link here:

    by Kimball Cross on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 12:09:42 PM PDT

    •  I'm not sure Melville realized what he was getting (0+ / 0-)

      at. I'm not denying your point, but saying it's one of myriad points and implications Meliville's making. The Whale is also God, the ineffable, the great unknowable and indomitable heart of this gnarly fallen world we contend with.

      Certainly compassion - towards Queequeg, Ahab, and perhaps especially for Moby Dick and all of Whaledom - is central to the great and noble worldview weaving this book together.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 04:06:04 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge, Brecht

    I always found it interesting how Star Trek referenced and used not only numerous quotes from MD in the movies and TV shows, but also the basic plot of an obsessed man who can't stop his drive for revenge, and the writers made it clear what the inspiration was from. An attempt to get viewers interested in classic lit?

    Romney/Sauron 2012 - One Party to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them!

    by Fordmandalay on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 12:56:03 PM PDT

  •  I didn't do well with it in college (3+ / 0-)

    I read most of it sitting in a doctor's office (also age 19) and it just didn't click, but in my middle fifties, I re-read it and then I loved it.

    I am really glad I re-read it.

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Fri Apr 27, 2012 at 02:55:00 PM PDT

  •  I love that f** book (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge, Brecht

    Father Mapple's sermon is something you can only put down and mutter "holy Christ."  

  •  Definitely a book (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge

    that continues to yield with each re-reading! My favorite discovery is in the chapter called "The Decanter" - an unassuming little nugget divulged when Ishmael speaks about boarding the Enderby off the wild Patagonian coast:

    And that fine gam I had- long, very long after old Ahab touched her planks with his ivory heel- it minds me of the noble, solid, Saxon hospitality of that ship; and may my parson forget me, and the devil remember me, if I ever lose sight of it.
    Ishmael persevered.

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