Moby Dick is one of those works that always seems to show up on that aggravating list of books you “should have read,” if you don’t want to be an American cultural illiterate.
You see it along with Walden, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, On the Road, To Kill A Mockingbird, that sort of stuff. You’ve seen some version of that list; we all have. I know that Moby Dick is formidable for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is Ishmael’s detailed description, page after page, of whale physiognomy. He says, “The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics,” and, by-god, he means it, as generations of readers can testify.
But full disclosure here. I have read Melville’s work multiple times now. That quote from Ishmael is in an online file I have that is 136 pages long and has what I thought were the coolest lines from the book, after my second reading. Due to whatever confluence of factors, I like reading long, dense and Everest-like books. I have a similar relationship with both James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, for example, and I read Proust’s three thousand word In Search of Lost Time at the rate of three pages a day for each of the thousand days leading up to my fiftieth birthday.
I’m a book geek, for chrissake, which is probably why I’ve been cutting cheese for a living rather than being an orthopedic surgeon like Dr Pamela Jones who did my shoulder replacement or a successful real estate developer or an astronaut or younameit. None of which is to suggest that people in these professions couldn’t also have read long books, of course. Two men in our circle in Massachusetts have read it, too, and I imagine there are others out there.
It’s just that what Fran Lebowitz says here really resonates–
“Everything is disappointing to those who read a lot. There’s no question that at no time in my life have I ever thought that life was as good as reading. And I haven’t had a bad life. What’s unusual about me is that most people I know who read to the extent that I do aren’t as precarious as I am.
I am additionally a lounge lizard of tremendous proportion. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy, I do. But I would rather read than have any kind of real life, like working, or being responsible. Reading prepares you for other reading, and possibly for writing, but, I’m happy to say, it certainly has nothing to do with real life. All the things that I never did because I was reading, so what? If someone said to me, how did you spend your life? I’d have to say, lying on the sofa reading.”
I don’t know about the lounge lizard part, but I sure do agree that not that much else in life is as good as reading.
The reason I bring this up at all is because I have been walking a lot by the sea here in Myrtle Beach, where my wife and I have been holed up for nearly a month, while I heal from shoulder replacement surgery. I’m on disability and don’t have to report to work, and I can spend a lot of time walking and putting thoughts into words. I recalled that Melville wrote a lot, in Moby Dick, about our relationship with the ocean. I looked in the aforementioned file and found: “Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.” He also said: “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me” and also “But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
On and on he goes, page after elegant page, reminding us why we are drawn to the sea and why we talk about it.
I was doing the same, thinking about what the breakers looked like, rolling in like the tarps at Fenway Park, and how it is that the rim of the sea is so perfectly level while this chaos reigns at my feet. And then it hit me that it’s like battles used to be fought with row after row of soldiers advancing toward each other, firing their single shot weapons. The surf is assaulting the shore, using the same “linear tactics” employed by armies up until the American Civil War. The first row would advance and shoot and then the next one would and then the next and so on. The waves are kind of like that. They crash into the shallow water and BOOM, they shoot, and then they’re empty, but the one right behind them goes BOOM and gets empty and the next one advances and goes BOOM and dies.
Well, I am no military historian and I had to look all of this up. Turns out that, with the advent of the musket, which could fire much further, utilized in our Civil War, the linear tactics became obsolete. The ocean didn’t know that, however, and the same tactics continue to this day.
Well, anyway, I was walking along thinking about the surf and the Civil War and I remembered something else about muskets. Maybe it came unbidden because I was headed to Starbucks. There were carbines in the war that had, no shit, built in coffee grinders. Did you know that?
An article in the NY Times (July 9, 2014) said: “For Union soldiers, and the lucky Confederates who could scrounge some, coffee fueled the war. Soldiers drank it before marches, after marches, on patrol, during combat. In their diaries, “coffee” appears more frequently than the words “rifle,” “cannon” or “bullet.” Ragged veterans and tired nurses agreed with one diarist: “Nobody can ‘soldier’ without coffee.”
The Union Army issued each soldier about 36 pounds per year, which they ground and brewed whenever they got a chance in little pots called muckets, and at the end of a day’s fighting fires would be lit and the air would be full of the buzz caused by tens of thousands of grinders. I thought that was one of the goddamn coolest bits of trivia I had ever heard about our terrible war. One general even planned battles around the times when he knew his men would be most caffeinated.
So, that’s it, that’s the drift of one man’s thoughts walking alone on a beach thinking about Moby Dick and how to render the wonder he felt at the immensity of the ocean. Remember the great line from Antoine de Saint-Exupery?
He said: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
“The endless immensity of the sea, the profundities of the ocean,” Melville said.
Back in the days before MDI, there were places called “Enrollment Central,” where there were “Men’s Rooms,” where we worked on getting men into weekend events. That Saint-Exupery quote was on the wall in the East Coast Men’s Room in Framingham, Massachusetts, and it provided the context for all that was done there.
Whatever relationship any of us has ever had with that older time, and whatever it might be now, I still have never known a better context for leadership.