I tried reading Moby Dick as a kid and gave up after reaching the chapter where Melville begins an exhaustive scientific description of the different species of whales and their respective biological features. That chapter occurs around the one-third mark of the book, if I remember right, and I completely gave up on what I considered a barrage of verbiage.
I remember Kuchi once told me, after a night of heavy drinking, that Moby Dick was his favorite book. I remember ridiculing his strange choice, and was doubly amazed when he told me his mother had read it out to him as a small child. But the incident stayed with me, and several months thereafter, I tried my hand at reading it again.
This time, I progressed much better, and ‘still I gazed, and still the wonder grew’ at Melville’s bravura performance. The book is hardly a novel. It’s a kind of Bible, a complete dissection of the human spirit, and an incredible allegory to boot. It’s the only truly Shakespearean work of literature of the 19th century. And in its encyclopedic description of a world so remote from us in time and space, it achieves the task of making us see eye-to-eye with Ishmael, and Captain Ahab, and all the other fine folks on board the Pequod.
So here’s today’s post: it’s not really about Moby Dick, but it’s by my favorite living author, Tony Hoagland, and it’s called “Reading Moby Dick at 30,000 feet”:
At this height, Kansas
is just a concept,
a checkerboard design of wheat and corn
no larger than the foldout section
of my neighbor’s travel magazine.
At this stage of the journey
I would estimate the distance
between myself and my own feelings
is roughly the same as the mileage
from Seattle to New York,
so I can lean back into the upholstered interval
between Muzak and lunch,
a little bored, a little old and strange.
I remember, as a dreamy
backyard kind of kid,
tilting up my head to watch
those planes engrave the sky
in lines so steady and so straight
they implied the enormous concentration
of good men,
but now my eyes flicker
from the in-flight movie
to the stewardess’s pantyline,
then back into my book,
where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
better than themselves,
wanting to kill it,
wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt
to prove that they exist.
Imagine being born and growing up,
rushing through the world for sixty years
at unimaginable speeds.
Imagine a century like a room so large,
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime
and never find the door,
until you had forgotten
that such a thing as doors exist.
Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.
Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,
to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.
What a relief it would be
to hear someone in the crew
cry out like a gull,
Oh Captain, Captain!
Where are we going now?