Reading is important for every writer, that’s what everyone says. I had plenty of reading to do in my graduate program and I’ve made a point of continuing to educate myself by occassionally reading a classic. My reading plan is not scientific. If I run into a one that I haven’t read recently, I buy the book or if I’m planning a long trip, I will even buy a reasonably priced used audio book. This approach is not thorough. It’s also not economical and it’s resulted in stacks and stacks of books all over my house. I frequently look longingly at new bookcases and promise myself that I will go to the library next time. Meanwhile, I’m playing catch-up on last summer’s purchases. My latest foray into classical reading land is an audio version of Moby Dick.
I decided to write about reading Moby Dick today because there’s a new book out about Melville’s classic. PW has an interview referenced at http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/tip-sheet/article/49102-five-questions-for-nathaniel-philbrick.html?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+Tip+Sheet&utm_campaign=8fc54c9b82-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email. Kind of interesting because he talks about how we can learn in a human sort of way, not a writer sort of way, about life from this book. The only thing I’ve picked up so far (really, I am going to finish the book but I became distracted by NPR again), is that Khan in the second Star Trek movie is quoting Ahab when he says, “He’s tasking me.”
The first part of the book takes its time getting to the actual tale of the Captain’s quest for revenge but there’s a lot of interesting details about life in New England and whaling and later about the whales themselves. (The whale part does go on and on.) I don’t really think that the discourse about Ishmael’s cannibal friend is all that big of him though. When he defends him, Melville sounds condescending, probably the best attitude that someone of that time period could have.
What I found disturbing was the great defense of whaling. There is no recognition of the value of wild life or any clue that people thought hunting them might lead to their extinction. I wanted to skip through that part but was afraid that I would miss something important so I didn’t. I thought the long passage was surprisingly in bad taste, maybe even for that time period and I don’t think anyone would say I’m a radical tree-hugger. As far as “learning” anything from the book, I think not. The historical details may be a good record of the times which I think is okay if that’s your goal. Since I finally advanced to the disc where Ishmael realizes this Captain is nuts, I imagine that I will finish the book even Faulkner got to the point more quickly in Absalom, Absalom.
As far as reading literature to help your writing, this book has reminded me that while there might be techniques or ways of applying your writing craft that you can pick up in a classic, the books are not modern in style and not necessarily a good guide for a writer today. Just my opinion.