Call Me Ishmael, But Not Unless You’re 30

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First semester, first day, first class in graduate school. The professor walks in, and this is a hand-on-a-stack-of-Bibles Professor. Think Sean Connery. He doesn’t look at anyone, just walks to the chalk board and starts writing. For the first twenty or so minutes he writes what I eventually find out is a bunch of Heidegerrian theory [read: nonsense] on “Being”. I also eventually find out (weeks later and after I’d purchased a couple of Heidegger’s books so as to try to make sense of the notes I had dutifully taken) that neither Heidegger nor “Being” has anything at all to do with our seminar on Hawthorne and Melville. Then the Professor hands out the syllabus. He still hasn’t said a word. Asks us, he finally does, if we notice anything missing from the syllabus. We had no chance to respond: Moby Dick, he said with a scoff that let us know we were all but wasting his time. “It’s not there because you aren’t old enough to read it. [He’s almost spitting at us by this point.] It’s a thirty-year-old novel. [He’s sighs and is just downright pitiful looking now–like a bassett hound with no teeth.] You have to be thirty years old before you can even begin to understand what Melville is trying to do in that book.” He went on [and on] about how you have to have a few more disappointments in life, a few more failures and heartbreaks and come out of them on the other side before Moby Dick would do you any good.

You Crotchety. Old. BAStard, is what I ended up thinking. Don’t you know who I am? My mother was an English teacher. My mother was MY High School English Teacher! I did a written AND oral report on Billy Budd when I was a Freshman! In High School! So we didn’t read it. We read all of Melville’s “lesser” works and everything Hawthorne even thought about writing, but there was this absolutely-nothing-short-of-an-actual itch inside me to read Moby, to see what the big deal was. I took the Professor’s theory as a challenge. I would read it, and I would understand it. And I was only 24.

The next semester I read it. I didn’t, in fact, “get” it, at least not on the level The Professor had meant. Other than a couple of scenes in the book (like when the sailors use whale penises as rain coats, and then there’s this beautiful scene where the sailors are burning whale blubber and sparks are flying every which way and they [the sailors] are dancing and it’s truly one of the best scenes I’ve ever read), I thought I’d pretty much wasted my time. I understood the book intellectually, but it didn’t move me.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that there are several different ways to “get” a book (I know this is nothing new, but humor me). To understand Moby Dick on an intellectual level, you need to understand the context in which it was written: understand Transcendentalism, the American Renaissance, 19th Century American culture. But that’s only one level on which to “get” a book. Over the years, I’ve begrudgingly come to accept The Proffessor’s idea that there are some books that can move you on an emotional level when they are read at certain points in your life.

I’m less concerned with reading books too early. I mean, I can always go back and reread Moby and see if it moves me on an emotional level (I never will, but I could). I have had a few more heartbreaks and failures and disappointments. But looking back on my reading experiences, I’ve come up with a variation on The Professor’s theory of reading. There are certain books that you can read too late in life if you really want to connect with them. A couple of examples that keep haunting me are The Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22 (oh, and On the Road). I read them in my late twenties, and I appreciated them. But I didn’t have the same response to them as I think I would have if I’d read them when I was 19 or 20. I was too old. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like those books a lot, I just really believe I would have loved them when I was younger. I would have been part of the cults that surround these books. I probably would have majored in English as an undergrad rather than Biology. I would probably compusively buy copies of them and hand them out to people on the street.

My point. I don’t really have one. I guess this is just a way of introducing part of how or why I read books. I have a big stack of books next to my, well, actually, stacks all over my house, to be read. I usually just pick up whatever is next on one of the stacks, so my reading is somewhat random. Regardless of this randomness, the books that stick with me the most are the ones that I am able to connect with on several different levels. I like books that make me think (like Moby is, theoretically, supposed to do), but if that’s all a book does, I’m disappointed. My favorite books are the ones that (and I hate this term, but I can’t think of a better one) move me–to think, yes, but more importantly, to feel, to act, to talk about, to think: hey, that’s exactly what I wanted to say in my gut but didn’t know how. And the books that move me the most are ones that in some way mirror some ongoing experience in my life. Love in the Time of Cholera, for example. Read it when you’re heartbroken and it will change your life [thank you, Leigh, for helping this book mean so much to me]. I don’t think I’d have liked it as much had I been happily in love at the time. The Grapes of Wrath. If I hadn’t been doing hard labor 60-ish hours a week for a millionaire who paid very little over minimum-wage and suspected all of us laborers as potential thieves or as though we were infants, I would have had much different experience reading that book.

My theory is flawed, and I know it. For some reason, I love some books written for children and adolescents. I’m not ashamed to admit that I like the Harry Potter series. Even more, I love Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. I’m a bit scared to analyze myself to find out why I like these books so much. Maybe it’s because I’m still in school and feel like there are evil professors plotting against me? Maybe it’s that I want school to turn into some big adventure rather than just being a boring exercise of sitting in the library. Whatever the case, I feel some connection with them, so I like them (and pluswise, the Pullman books are very, very smart, I think).

Most of the time in this column, I’ll discuss a single book rather than general nonsense about reading. I just wanted to get it out in the open that I end up liking books that have the intangibles that don’t necessarily make them “Great” books, and I love hearing why people like reading what they read [as long as it’s not because the chapters are short]. And in the future, I’ll try not to say that a book “moves” me unless it is an absolute necessity. Next week, I plan to discuss Nicole Krauss’s novel: Man Walks Into a Room. It moves me.

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9 Responses to “Call Me Ishmael, But Not Unless You’re 30”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Interesting thoughts.

    I agree about the Pullman books and _Moby Dick_. Besides being smart, the former are also extremely subversive, I thought, particularly to Churchianity.

    Another excellent children’s book is Lois Lowry’s _The Giver_. As smart as Pullman’s trilogy, IMHO, but less preachy.

    It’s interesting that children’s literature — a lot of it, at least — can be meaningful and pleasurable to read at any age, while much of adult lit. really needs to be read while one is still a kid.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Hey Michael! I’m going to look forward to your articles each week – I’m hoping they’ll give me a little bit of inspiration/direction.

    Compared to many, I’m considered a reader – but I know I’m not. I end up reading quite a bit of non-fiction stuff, but when it comes to the good/fun stuff (fiction), I’m not up on what to read at all. I read “The Giver” on Trent’s recommendation (and loved it), but outside of that, I’m the type person that has read all the John Grisham stuff, and the 1st Harry Potter book (which I surprised myself by liking so much), and other than a few isolated things, that’s about it…

    I look forward to reading what you have to say. I might have tried “Catcher in the Rye” if you didn’t remind me that I’m getting old. Plus, your (and Trent’s) allusions to “Love in the Time of Cholera” had piqued my interest, but I’m reasonably content right now. 🙂

    Keep up the good stuff… I hope you’ll lead me down the dangerously wonderful, life-changing path of literature.

  3. Coolhand Says:

    You hug your mom with the same hands you typed “whale penises” with?

    I know what your saying about reading something at the right time. I read “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” my sophomore year in college and it blew my mind. It never occured to me you could use words like that, and I was going through a young-man-finding-himself phase, so I identified profoundly with the protagonist. In fact, if I hadn’t read that book I might not have been an English major and might have stayed a Biology major.

    Life is weird.

  4. Gary Says:

    I really enjoyed your article. It moved me.
    I agree with what everyone is saying about the timing of your life experiences and the books you read. I read Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein), when I was 17 or 18 and I tore off a piece of the last page and ate it so I could grok it with fullness.

  5. Steve Says:

    wow.

    i’m five days into reading your columns and i already feel like i should be paying for a subscription to get this humor and intellectualism.

    great job on the lit stuff, i got my undergrad in English…and general props to all of you houseflies.

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I think I speak for all the Houseflies when I say: if it will ease your conscience, feel free to send cash.

  7. madeline Says:

    I like how you announce what you’re going to write on next week so I have a chance to READ it. So I have an excuse to read something besides network theory. So I can waste some time in the library looking for fiction. So I can read a book and feel like a person and not like I’m supposed to be a friggin’ machine processing information to reproduce in some changed, insightful way. So I can be moved, too.

    I like to be moved, and I want you to use that word when it strikes you. I won’t think it’s cheap or cliche. From you, it will be real.

  8. Michael Lasley Says:

    Maddy, that’s one of the books that’s in the mail for you, so don’t buy it.

    Andy, My mom and I have a don’t ask don’t tell policy concerning whale penises.

    Al, I’m not saying NOT to read Catcher in the Rye or Cholera. You may well enjoy them. There is some stuff in Cholera that has little to do with heartache, and it’s beautifully written. The heartache was simply what I most connected with. Maybe I should have written that in the column–I usually try to find some sort of connection to my life in the fiction I read. It’s just kind of nice when you stumble across it.

  9. juvenal_urbino Says:

    “network theory”

    Say the magic word and win a hundred dollars. </Groucho>

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