I like to read classic literature.
My current project though … oh dear.
I’m 38 percent of the way through Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Let me tell you what’s happened so far.
1. Protagonist met sidekick.
2. They joined the crew of a whaling ship.
3. Mysterious stranger said, “Don’t join the crew of that whaling ship.” Protagonist and sidekick said, “You’re nuts.”
4. Ship sailed. Protagonist and sidekick are aboard.
5. They saw a whale, and did not hunt it.
6. Captain Ahab said he wants to hunt a particular whale. Everybody’s cool with it.
7. They saw another whale, and did hunt it.
That’s it. No, I’m serious. Nothing else – no other event – has occurred.
In 200 pages, seven things have happened.
What’s taken up the rest of those pages, you ask?
Essays about whaling. Lists of types of oil. Long, irrelevant backstories for every single character, none of whom I can tell apart because they haven’t done anything yet. (Except Starbuck, because his name is Starbuck.) More essays about whaling. Dinner. Racism. Several different sea shanties, written in the form of a play. Lists of types of whales. More essays about whaling.
I’ll be honest: I’m struggling with this one, you guys.
While not as annoying as the multi-page lists of fish in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (no, really), all this info dumping is a slog to read. This is supposed to be the great revenge tale of literature. So far, it’s not.
While some sentences are absolutely transcendent in their artistry, others drag on for so long that I have to scroll back and say, “What, what were we talking about?”
At this point, I’m reading the book so that I will have read it. It’s more of a homework assignment than a leisure activity.
Here’s the thing, though: This is how books used to be. Read enough of the “big old books” and you’ll find they’re full of random tangents about other topics. Literature then served as a means of education, not just entertainment. War and Peace contains dozens of historical essays. Les Miserables discusses social class and the architecture of the Parisian sewers. Don Quixote catalogs the reshaping of a society from one of legend to one of practicality. These books aren’t just stories set in their times; they’re historical records of those times.
Some have compelling stories that propel you through the tedious portions. Others don’t. But they all became classics for a reason – they illuminated some area of life in a way that forced readers to think and/or feel differently.
At the moment, I suspect Moby Dick‘s illuminations may not be relevant to modern readers. (Maybe I’m wrong, and the second half of the book will blow my mind.) Sometimes that happens; a classic turns out to have dramatically influenced its own time, or some period after its time, but the themes and topics are no longer part of the modern reader’s life experience. Does that make the book bad? No.
Books are products of their times. The themes we find fascinating today will likely bore readers two hundred years from now. They’ll have their own problems to worry about, and the issues that grip us won’t grip them. Yet some works will still be read, because they’ll provide a window into the past, a look at the sorts of themes we found intriguing, the sorts of stories that shaped our lives.
Which classics have transcended their times and changed your life? Which ones did you find less relevant? Have you read Moby Dick, and if so, what did you think?