When all the world began truly shutting down and people began turning to baking bread and skyping with their families, I picked up Moby Dick. I’d tried it last summer, as part of a half formed book club which fell apart less than halfway through the novel. I still have a stamped portrait of the whale in the blood-red sea tucked into my copy of the book- given to me by the only other member of the group with any enthusiasm for this novel. It now serves as my bookmark. I have never finished it, or even gotten farther than we did, but this year, under the threat of quarantine, I picked it up again. In doing so, I rediscovered something I hadn’t been faced with in years: I am not able to read Moby Dick. When I sit down to conquer this behemoth, I find myself without all the qualities of an experienced sailor. My hands are uncalloused, my mind unfocused, my body swift to turn away – resenting the storm of words raining down on me.
Isolation and solitude are the perfect ingredients for private, contemplative living. We see this at its most extreme in monasticism, and I cannot think of a practice more at odds with modern American life. We find solitude in our modern lives rarely, if at all. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we have found ways to fill every moment, as though to avoid at all costs being alone with our individual thoughts. This makes reading far more difficult, because reading a great novel forces you to face your own thoughts and wrestle with your own assumptions. Add hundreds of pages of facts about whales, whaling, and countless descriptions of voyaging, and you perhaps see why so many people are content to never give Melville a try.
Jacob, the enthusiast from my ill-fated book club, has read Melville not once or twice, but many times in his short lifespan. It was he, of course, who suggested the novel, and then bought each member a copy of it to urge us on. Even more so, he showed up to our ill-fated first meeting with the aforementioned handmade whale prints for each member and a ten page handout he had prepared for us on the background of Melville’s life. Over beers, we all struggled to dissect the early sermons of the novel, and laughed over his favorite passages. His love for the novel was obvious, but not contagious. Our group fell apart in less than a month, and the novel sat untouched on my bedside table for nearly a year before I picked it up.
What drove me to pick it up was one of its first lines – “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul”. This year has been a damp, drizzly November in my soul, and so I have taken my place with Ishmael. I have “quietly taken to the ship”, in the initially desperate hope that it would shake my gloominess. Most days, I have no interest in the novel. In the midst of my daily life I have seemingly no use for a detailed account of every whale mentioned in writing before Melville’s time. Scrolling through social media, watching a movie, or even just sitting around bemoaning how little there is to do is easier than forcing myself to read more in the novel. I sometimes go weeks before I convince myself to read just one more chapter. The thing that keeps me going, however, is how much this novel reminds me of my brother when he was little.
My brother was insatiable for facts about battles, ships, and soldiers when he was around seven. He pored over books with detailed images, memorized every post a soldier might have on any given ship, and learned the name and backstory of every weapon and war machine in all his favorite fictional stories. At dinner, he would update us on what he’d learned in the form of a question: “did you know…?”. We never knew, of course, and found it amusing and endearing how passionately he researched facts about old, obsolete, or imaginary armies. If his current career in the military means anything, those hours of research fundamentally changed him and guided him to where he is today.
I see the same insatiable curiosity in Melville. Far before the internet was at his fingertips, he scoured every book he could find for even a single sentence about a whale. He researched whaling, sailing, and traced every great sea creature through history in relation to whales. Every time I want to roll my eyes as he begins explaining something in Moby Dick, I picture him in my mind, sitting across from me at the table, eyes shining, asking that question: “did you know…?!”. Perhaps it is the romantic in me who wants to love anything with the dedication with which Melville loved whales, or the extrovert in me who deflates every time I notice that what I’m talking about isn’t interesting to anyone present, but it keeps me reading.
Literature has the power to fundamentally change and shape the way you see the world and the people around you through its characters and the experiences you see them through, but it also holds the same power purely through you reading it. Unwittingly, that is why Moby Dick is the read I needed in the turmoil of 2020 – it is the one thing I have that unrelentingly teaches me to be patient, to motivate myself, and to put my own wants and demands aside in order to listen to the passions and needs of others. I have to endure the initial pain of real labor so that I can build up my strength for heavy topics, thick reads, and great questions. This is a side of reading rarely talked about; while the classics certainly change us through their content, they also change us and shape us in the very act of learning to read them.
This is, of course, part of the beauty of Classical Education. It demands this kind of reading from its students. Classical students are still required to read through long, difficult works of literature, and at a volume others will never attempt. Rather than abandoning books that are proving difficult to understand, students are placed in a wrestling match with the author, by teachers who know that each student will walk away from the ring changed in some way. I’d argue this is the skill young people today most need – the ability and the stamina to wrestle with a novel until the end, and to take something away from each novel. I’m still learning to fight those battles, not flee, but Melville sits patiently on my bedside table, taunting me into the ring for another bout.