Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of those classic novels which I’ve picked up to read several times in former years — only to put it back on the shelf. My enthusiasm has died several deaths on the rack of 19th-century prose. But when I started reading it again last week, I was finally hooked.
What I didn’t realize before was that Moby Dick is a retelling (or at least it seems this way to me through page 80) of the biblical book of Jonah. That book is one of the pithiest in the Bible. In the span of four chapters, Jonah tries to escape from an errand God has earmarked for him but is finally persuaded to return and complete it after spending three days repenting in the stomach of a whale.
Melville spells out the analogy to the Jonah story by having his narrator — Ishmael — listen to a sermon about the book of Jonah early in Moby Dick. The sermon is delivered by an old sea captain turned pastor in a church which resembles as much the inside of a whaling ship as it does a place of worship. But this captain-pastor adds many details out of his imagination to the story of Jonah. Much like Melville in the entirety of Moby Dick.
Ishmael represents Jonah, escaping from unpleasant realities on land by running away to sea. If Ishmael is Jonah, his cannibal friend Queequeg may represent the Gentile shipmates with whom Jonah sailed. Captain Ahab may represent the wicked Ninevites in the book of Jonah. But Ahab is also an idolatrous Israeli king talked about in several other books of the Hebrew Bible. Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale seems to be like the idol-worship that is condemned in many books of the Hebrew Bible.
I’m just a fraction of the way into the book, but I like how Melville has taken a well-worn short story from the Bible and created an elaborate modern version out of it. Moby Dick, published in 1851, may seem like a far-removed story to 21st-century American readers, but if you keep in mind that it’s retelling a story that’s actually over 2,000 years old, Herman Melville’s novel comes off as remarkably contemporary.
Have your relatives ever told you stories about your ancestors that made you reevaluate your own identity? My grandmother once told me that her father (my great-grandfather) possessed a mellifluous voice and staged concerts for his fellow Allied soldiers imprisoned in a German POW camp during World War I. Hearing this story, it made me question how genetic quality could dissipate so quickly, for my vocal chords can’t produce a single melodic note if my family’s honor depended on it.
Like talking to our grandparents about departed relatives, reading history can change our perspective about our own selves or our community. I selected the books for August (remember, these are previews, not reviews: I have not read these books yet) that drew me in either because they addressed a need for self-knowledge or promised to inform me about the world around me. As a result, almost of them, I noticed later, have to do with U.S. history. But I think our subjectivity is what lights our interest afire. Our bias is our personality, and without it history narratives wither before us like dehydrated fruit.
New York City roots
For several months, I’ve had an itch to discover “literary” neighborhoods in Chicago. Seeking counsel, I asked fellow Chicagoans (full disclosure: I live in the suburbs, not the city proper) where writers live or congregate in the Windy City. No one had an answer, which made me despair that the only destination for writers in the United States was prohibitively-expensive Manhattan. (more…)
I never thought of the Chicago suburbs as a place worthy of literature. Books, on the contrary, are something suburbanites use, like drugs, to escape the reality of their environment – a dull, slow, lonely locale, without the drama of a big city or even a small rural town. As Dave Eggers notes in his book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (hereafter referred to as AHWoSG), often under the veneer of a safe and calm neighborhood, the spirit of a suburbanite dies slowly.
I’ve had this book since high school, just sitting on my shelf. I began reading it when I was eighteen, but, coming off of English classes focusing on Faulkner, Camus, and Sartre, I was sick of authors who played fast and loose with the rules of language, especially to evoke depressing thoughts. I just graduated high school, was looking forward to college, and didn’t need these heavy stories. So I stopped reading after skimming the first few pages.
Six years later, I tried reading AHWoSG again, and finished it in the course of a week. I did not realize until this latest attempt to read AHWoSG that a good portion of the book takes place in Lake Forest, IL. In fact, the author grew up there. One of the most influential novels of the decade was written about one of the most boring places on earth.
I was inspired by this, this entering of the Chicago suburbs into literary history. There is some beauty here after all, if one has the eyes to see. (more…)
When I was younger, I used to love reading a good book so much that I never wanted it to end, never wanted to say goodbye to its characters. Now, in my relatively more mature years, I rarely get this feeling, though I still love to read good books. Reading the last page about Dean Moriarty, I felt little sadness.
Beat writer Jack Kerouac writes in the last pages of On the Road,
So Dean couldn’t ride uptown with us and the only thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him. The bookie at the wheel also wanted nothing to do with Dean. Dean, ragged in a motheaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again. Poor little Laura, my baby, to whom I’d told everything about Dean, began almost to cry.
“Oh, we shouldn’t let him go like this. What’ll we do?”
Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said, “He’ll be all right.” And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Dean and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.
Reading On the Road, I wondered whether the spirit of the character of Dean Moriarty had suffused itself into American culture – I saw it everywhere. The incessant traveler, lover of sights and people and smells, rubbing his belly for joy, sweating, American Odysseus without a home, Walt Whitman re-incarnate. Without Dean Moriarty, the journeys that author Jack Kerouac wrote about that he took with Dean would never have taken place. Dean was the leader. (more…)