Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > A Great Chase Scene at the Talbot County Free Library
I love the classics. In high school, I worked my way, one ablative at a time, through The Aeneid and Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War. In college, I read Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles in translation. Beowulf and the Bede gave me a taste for the Dark Ages that would eventually lead me to write The Oblate's Confession. And of course I've never been able to get enough of Shakespeare. As for the modern classics ... well, I cut my teeth on Twain and Dickens, gained what passes for a political conscience from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and found my writer's touchstone in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.
Still, like many people, I sometimes find myself having to admit—spluttering out excuses as to why—that I haven't read one of the canon's most important works. I've attempted War and Peace several times, and never managed to get past page 30. Though I am a Southerner born and bred, I find Faulkner's prose overwrought and overrated. And many of the nineteenth century classics—Silas Marner, The Last of the Mohicans, Tess of the D'Urbervilles—leave me high and dry.
But our patrons never cease trying to educate me. The other day a gentleman came up to the Information Desk and asked where he might find a book about Patagonia. As we talked, he told me that, while he loved to read, he never read fiction, as he thought it frivolous. I have heard this sentiment so many times now (usually from men, usually in a tone that implies a certain pride in the judgment), that I scarcely listen to it anymore. So he surprised me when he added, as if it were an obvious corollary, that he made an exception when it came to Moby Dick. Moby Dick, he assured me, “is the greatest book ever written.” You can imagine what it felt like when I—the defender of all great fiction—had to admit I had never read Moby Dick.
Not that I hadn't tried. We were supposed to read it in high school, but at that age, finding its obsessive attention to whaling minutiae boring, I shamelessly resorted to Cliff Notes...and barely squeaked through the exam. In my early twenties I gave it another shot, and this time found its abrupt changes in narrative style unnecessarily destructive to the story its author was trying to tell ... and with all the vanity of a would-be writer, wrote the whole thing off as a failure of craft.
But there was something about this patron's enthusiasm for the book that jogged loose a bit of latent high school guilt. I knew I should have read the blasted thing, and at my age I'd better hurry up and do it before I lost the chance. So I wandered over into the M's, found Melville, found five copies of Moby Dick on the shelf, opened the one nearest to hand, and felt my spirits sink. Page after page of tiny, dense text, paragraph after mind-numbing paragraph of intimidatingly antiquated prose. No, I told myself, it is a fool's errand to try to read a book just because someone long since gone to his or her (doubtless well-deserved) grave called it a “classic.” I'm above that sort of thing. I have better things to do with my time.
But before I could slink off, metaphysical tail between my legs, I noticed one of the Moby Dicks looked different from the others. Bound in black leather, with an intaglio of a whale impressed in gold on its cover, its pages trimmed in a similar, reflective gold, this thing was no cheap knockoff. Indeed, it had the heft and feel of a bible. And so, despite grave misgivings, I opened the book and found—oh happy days!—the print to be of a civilized size and font: easy on the eye, comforting to the mind. I checked it out.
Mr. Pike taught English my junior year of high school, and if he's still alive somewhere (and I certainly hope he is), I would like to tell him that, only half a century after the fact, little Billy Peak has finally completed his reading assignment for the second and third weeks of first term. And what is more, Mr. Pike, he enjoyed it. Still, I think I would have to take exception, even after all these years, to your calling Moby Dick a classic novel. It is many fascinating things—labor history, Shakespearean theater, Yankee boosterism, cetacean biology text, history of the mid-nineteenth century whaling industry, study of comparative religion, and even a bit of a Joycean romp ... but a novel? I think there's the framework of a novel lurking in there somewhere beneath all the astonishing marginalia, but it isn't a novel, at least not in the classical sense of the word.
But oh, the marginalia! You don't just hunt whales in Moby Dick, you come to know them inside and out, to feel their anguish when mortally wounded, their mastery over the depths, their triumph in the escape. Melville's sperm whales, though they lack a face, are possessed of a “contemplative brow,” think lofty, noble thoughts. Who knew that two such things could co-exist in a 19th century harpooneer, greed for the whale's oil and sympathy for its life? Thanks to the Talbot County Free Library and a nameless patron who dreamt of Tierra del Fuego, I have walked the decks of the Pequod with Ishmael and Queequeg, watched Captain Ahab go slowly mad, chased—from one side of the planet to the other—the great, the classic, great white whale.
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