Sunday, June 3, 2012

Moby-Dick, Chapter 42, The Whiteness of the Whale

Moby-Dick (with a dash, yes) is a big (whale of a) book. At the Kansas City Central Library, I meet as often as I can with my book club, “The Downtowners” led by Kaite Stover. For this month’s gathering Kaite asked us to read “Why Read Moby-Dick?” by Nathaniel Philbrick (2011). I liked it.

Moby-Dick is hard work in this day of plentiful e-and-paper books. I suppose we wrestle at times to decide what to read. Philbrick makes a nice case for climbing aboard the Peqoud for Ismael’s voyage. Philbrick’s treatise runs 131 pages; a smidge of Melville’s stack. The small book reminds me of Harold Bloom’s 154 page adoration of Hamlet called “Hamlet: poem unlimited” (2003) and Alian De Botton’s 208 page “How Proust Can Change Your Life”. Today there’s a market for books about books; books to encourage people to read.

Colonel Edwin V. Sutherland, once the Head of the English Department at West Point, taught a two-semester course called simply “The Novel”. We read Moby-Dick. Next door, his assistant Head, Colonel John Capps, taught American Lit. Capps taught Moby-Dick as well, I discovered the year after my journey with Sutherland. Both asked us to focus upon Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale. It took me two visitations with that fascinating chapter to begin to understand Moby-Dick. That chapter is a tangent more than a few editors today would scrap. Philbrick avoided it completely. I’m glad Capps and Sutherland had us confront it.

Philbrick invites us to visit Moby-Dick and read just a bit. He recommends some nice segments. I’d like to recommend Chapter 42 for those interested in color, lack thereof, symbols, and human perception. It’s a nice chapter to get to know Ismael better. It’s a great rest from Ahab’s crazy behavior. If you enjoy poetry, Chapter 42 could engage you.

Moby-Dick is a thick book in many ways. It may sit on your shelf next to James Joyce’s Ulysses. On my bookshelf, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest stands like a giant yet to be tackled by me. This summer, again, maybe. It’s a big commitment, David. Be patient with me.

If Moby-Dick is on your school (at whatever level) reading list, I feel for you. Have a glance at Philbrick’s little book. He may set your mind at ease. Moby-Dick is a long voyage as Ulysses was a very long day of June 16, 1904. Long is tough these days. To read books like this we need time to stop time to take the time to slip into the time a writer creates for us. In the meantime, if you have some time, check out Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick, The Whiteness of the Whale.

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