by David Ebenbach
Don’t mess with Moby Dick. And I’m not talking about the whale, though you should probably leave the whale alone, too—I’m saying don’t mess with the book.
A while back I posted a piece on Medium called “Call Me Irritable: A Chapter Outline of Moby Dick in the Form of an Increasingly Frustrating Conversation with a Guy Named Ishmael.” I had just finished reading Moby Dick for the first time (For shame! How could I have waited for so long?) and I had not enjoyed the experience. So I wrote the fictional conversation as a way of poking fun at what struck me as a novel whose scattered great parts got lost in a book that was in general bloated, shapeless, and dull.
Some people liked the fun-poking; I’m not the only person in the history of the world to not enjoy Moby Dick. But some other folks had advice for me. They told me to read the book more slowly, or to apply different standards to the book, or to try to appreciate the little things instead of the big picture. In one way or another, these folks told me that I was reading the book wrong, or that my dislike of the book just pointed to my own deficiencies.
This confirmed my perception that Moby Dick is one of those special books that has become so firmly entrenched as a literary classic that it has become something more than a novel—it has become the literary equivalent of the Bible.
What do I mean by that? I mean this: when a piece of literature becomes a Bible, it is no longer open to question, or at least to certain questions. We can ask, “Hey—why is this so amazing?” and “What did Melville mean with this symbol?” and “How can I get more out of this?” We can ask questions intended to help us understand and appreciate the book more thoroughly. But we can’t ask questions like, “Um, isn’t this book a complete mess, with truly striking, beautiful, exciting stuff broken up by many incredibly boring chapters full of protracted (and often misinformed) lectures about whales and whaling equipment and whaling technique?” We can’t ask questions, in other words, that question the goodness or rightness of the text.
Because here’s the thing about a Bible, understood traditionally: when you have a problem with a Bible, there is no possibility that the Bible is wrong—this is supposed to be divine stuff, after all. There is only the possibility that you are wrong, and you can only hope to work harder in order to better grasp the wisdom of the Bible.
For the record, I don’t think that the Bible should be read this way, either, but that’s a subject for another essay. More to the point, classics of literature may be wonderful, but not one of them was written by a god, and it seems to me, as a reader, that every one of them should ultimately be open to all possible questions that enter your mind. These include: “Is this working?” “Should some of this be cut/expanded?” and “How might this be improved?”
And here’s another question that ought to be allowed: “Should I stop reading?”
I want to get something out of a book, but if it just isn’t happening, there are approximately 78 quadrillion other books out there that might prove more moving and useful. If, after putting in some real effort, my dissatisfaction builds up too much, I try to figure out what’s not working for me (so that I can be sure not to reproduce the problem in my own work), and then I do a potentially sacrilegious thing: I put the book down. I put it down and move on. And surely that happens sometimes with my own books—people put them down and walk away. That’s the reader’s prerogative.
Of course, it’s a delicate balance. When I start reading a book—not just a “classic” but any book—I do enter it somewhat Biblically, in the sense that my mind is open and my stance is humble. I’m ready for it to be good, to teach me something. And if I have early buzzings of uncertainty, as long as they’re not too loud, I try to stay in there. I want the book to succeed. I want to get something out of it. After all, being a writer in part means being very inclined to get things out of books. If lots of other people have liked the book—if it is considered a classic, for example—I work even harder to keep my mind open. If trustworthy friends have recommended the book, I work harder still. I definitely don’t want to miss an opportunity to be wowed by a piece of writing, so I give it every chance I can.
And don’t we want people to approach our own work that way? I think each writer produces work that, if it’s any good, makes fresh demands of the reader—by messing with the rules of point of view, say, or using voice in a new way, or taking an idiosyncratic angle on structure or pacing or characterization or whatnot—and we don’t want people to say, “This isn’t what I’m used to, so it’s bad.” Naturally we each hope that readers will be open to the possibility of meeting the work’s demands. And we believe that they’ll be rewarded for hanging in there with an open mind.
If I’m honest, I think that’s part of what bothers me about Moby Dick: envy. Not envy of the writing, but envy of how it’s received. It’s a “classic,” so people automatically come at it with a Biblical mind-set. Meanwhile, they probably look at contemporary writing (e.g., mine) with a more critical eye. (After all, Melville was pretty much dismissed in his own lifetime.) My ideal is something more equitable, with every piece of writing getting the benefit of the doubt provisionally, at first. That’s the hope I have as a writer, and it’s the ideal I shoot for as a reader: each text approached with the question Is this maybe kind of Biblical? If the answer turns out to be yes, great. If the answer is no, that’s fine, too. You’re allowed to put the book down. Let someone else call that guy Ishmael.
David Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.