Moby Dick is a squitchy good read (Surprise!)

Doug Ross mentioning The Canterbury Tales back on this post — which I never read (somehow, I escaped its being required of me in school) — reminds me of something I'm reading at the moment and sort of enjoying, much to my surprise:

Moby Dick.

For years — for decades in fact; almost four of them — I refused to read Moby Dick on principle. You see, we spent like six weeks on it in my honors English class in the 11th grade at Robinson High School in Tampa, and I never did read it, at least not past "Call me Ishmael." And yet I got an A-plus on the six weeks test on the book. How? First, because it was an essay test — which always gave me a leg up in school. Multiple choice can be such a brutally effective means of telling whether you actually know the material. With an essay, you can be careful to stick to what you know you know, and steer clear of your blank spots. And some, but not all, teachers are dazzled by a nicely worded essay. Although not all teachers — I had one prof in college who wrote on one of my better B.S. efforts something like, "Nicely written; I enjoyed it. But obviously you are not familiar with the material." Enough teachers were snowed for me to get by, though. And I confess this played a not inconsiderable part in my decision to write for a living.

Also — and this is the bigger point — how on Earth could I possibly not be familiar with all the themes, characters and plot after six weeks of listening to people talk and talk and talk about it in class, even if I was only half-listening, which was probably the case?

Anyway, I took such perverse pride in that grade — one of my most dramatic coups of skating without having done the work in my educational career — that I avoided reading the book subsequently because I didn't want to spoil the perfection of my slacker record. I had read — and enjoyed — other books years after I was supposed to have read them in school. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for instance. But I kept myself pure on Melville.

But I picked up a copy recently, tempted by the fact that I'm such a huge fan of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring tales and thinking I might actually enjoy this one, although not having high expectations.

And you know what? While I doubt it will ever be my favorite novel, I've been really surprised by how accessible it is. I mean, I always had the impression (based on the way the people who actually read it in school groaned about the experience) that it was just something that no one in our era could possibly relate to, that it was way too 19th century for that (and not in a fun way, like Mark Twain). But on the contrary, I'm struck by how modern its tone and style is in parts. Also, it's very bite-sized — the chapters are no longer than a typical newspaper column, and each one a well-crafted nugget all by its lonesome. So you can read a chapter, think "That wasn't so bad," then read another, and really feel like you're making progress without a lot of time invested all at once. (Try that with Dostoevsky, someone I actually did read and enjoy when I was supposed to in college, but not a guy you'd describe as "accessible" in the sense that I mean here.)

Far from being some boring old guy telling us stuff in boring old language, Ishmael as a narrator is actually sort of hiply ironic. He has a detachment and amusement toward his heavy subject material that is very late-20th century. And sometimes, the language itself goes along with the tone. For instance, in this passage very early in the book, describing a painting he puzzled over at The Spouter Inn:

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.–It's the Black Sea in a midnight gale.–It's the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.–It's a blasted heath.–It's a Hyperborean winter scene.–It's the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture's midst. THAT once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

Who'd have thought Melville could have written such a line as "A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted?" That is a very New Journalism use of language; one could imagine Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson being responsible for it. Or, to speak in fiction terms, it can be almost as modern-feeling as Nick Hornby or Roddy Doyle. It strikes me that way, anyway. Way more modern-seeming than much-later writers such as James Joyce or Fitzgerald or even Hemingway (who sounded WAY modern in the 20s, I suppose, but not so much later on).

As I read on, Ishmael is not what I'd call a likable character — he's too much of a wise guy for that, tossing out ironic comments about everyone and everything. But he's certainly accessible.

And that surprised me.

47 thoughts on “Moby Dick is a squitchy good read (Surprise!)

  1. Pollyanna

    “I took such perverse pride in that grade” — much akin to my husband’s wicked glee while chalking up as many “didn’t even buy the textbook” courses as he could. I won’t say where he got his college degree.
    The only right thing to, in hindsight, is return the degree.
    What is it with you people?

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  2. Brad Warthen

    In my case, I’m not sure what I’d return. I didn’t get my high school diploma from Robinson; I graduated from Radford High in Honolulu. And I actually read the books I was assigned in English in Hawaii. Of course, they were all modern, hip stuff that we helped choose, such as Catch-22 and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Except for Ibsen — she did make us read Ibsen. And I really got into it, especially “Enemy of the People.” Of course, Mrs. Burchard was one of my favorite teachers ever, so I suppose I did it to please her.
    I suppose I could return my class ring — which is from Robinson, NOT from the school I graduated from, thanks to the absurd practice of making kids order their class rings during their Junior years, whether they’d be there in their senior years or not. Such traditions were not designed with military brats in mind.
    But I don’t want to. Nor should I. Hey, I learned what I was expected to learn about Moby Dick, from the class discussion. I just didn’t read it.

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  3. p.m.

    You may have given me a project, Brad.
    I never have been able to plow the “Moby Dick” sea, nor sail the deserts of “Dune”.
    Something in the styles, the wrong rhythm or some such, made reading those books like swimming through mud for me.
    Yet your example intrigues me. It will be a slow go, but one chapter at a time, if you can do it, I can do it.
    “Dune” I will do without, however. Too much spice for me.

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  4. Bart

    Your comments gave me cause to pause and reflect for a moment the genuine pleasure I derive from reading a great novel or a simple column from a true wordsmith. It is liberating to read a book or passage that speaks to you and transports you into the story.
    Few authors have been as compelling to me as the one I consider the greatest, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. If you have never read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and felt the cold to the bone along with the small joy at a simple victory, you are missing a treat indeed. Another author I especially enjoy is James Thurber. A unique approach about the human condition and a great voyage through everyday life and how he puts the simple and complex into human terms. I keep a copy of “My Life and Hard Times” on my desk. Occasionally I read one of his stories, “The Day the Dam Broke” to remind myself of the hysteria we are capable of creating out of whole cloth.
    As a young man, I traveled the wilds of an untamed America with James Fenimore Cooper in his books and lived the adventures of John James Audubon as he traveled into uncharted territories documenting wildlife. I read about and appreciated the genius of one George Washington Carver through a great writer who was able to convey a sense of compassion and understanding about a black man who to this day touches our lives as a result of his research and use of a brilliant mind. A black man so far ahead of his time, he may never receive the accolades he deserves.
    Great books written by great authors also gave me something I treasure to this day. They challenged an inquisitive mind to appreciate where I come from and to respect the beliefs, traditions, and cultures of those who tread the paths of discovery ahead of me. They gave me a deeper appreciation of simple honor and justice even when it seemed as if neither existed.
    When I want to read something that gives me hope, grounds me, and teaches me, I read the Bible. Truly intelligent people won’t dismiss the Bible because they understand that along with the intellectual, pragmatic, or skeptical approach to life in general, there is the need to have faith in something we cannot reach out and touch for the sake of convenience or to prove a point. For some, an education is meant to disprove the need for faith, for others, an education is meant to open your mind to the possibility of what cannot be seen or touched.
    Read all you can when you can. Instead of watching American Idol, read a chapter or two of a novel you avoided in your youth. It will always pay high rewards.

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  5. KP

    All of which reminds me of my experience with Faulker in college. I distinctly remember throwing Absalom, Absalom! across the room after a sentence had gone on for three pages and showed no sign of ending. I retrieved the book and persisted, and went on to read everything he ever wrote. I’m going to take Bart’s advice and read some of the classics I never got to. But maybe not Moby Dick.

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  6. Maybe the Mockingbird will die on its own

    Maybe if someone would write a new review for Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” — that would give me motivation to turn another page.
    It is supposed to be a classic. There is just no energy in the storyline. It’s great for going back in time. Not too great for moving you forward to the end of it.

    Dis same book was reedin las year
    http://icanhascheezburger.com/2009/01/23/funny-pictures-year-she-not-2-smart/

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  7. p.m.

    Thank you, Bart. And if you can’t bring yourself to read one you never got to, reading one of the great ones again never hurts.

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  8. Lee Muller

    These little phony censorship scares, like the non-existent Sarah Palin censorship, are just diversions from real threats to free speech.
    * Democrats want to dictate the content of talk radio and cable television, and remove some commentators from broadcasting.
    * As newspapers approach bankruptcy, how many of them will have the integrity to refuse government bailout money, stock ownership, seats on their boards of directors, and the inevitable pressure to suppress even more news?

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  9. Cotton

    About five years ago, when I was in my late 30s, I decided I owed it to myself to read as many of the classics as I could find time for. I’d read a handful while in school, but no more than a dozen or so, mostly Hemingway, along with The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary and All Quiet on the Western Front.
    Since then, I’ve probably read 100 or more books that would be included in the Western canon, including Moby-Dick. Most were books I knew bits and pieces of but had never taken the time to sit down and read.
    The experience has been a wonderful one, illuminating both mentally and spiritually, and one I heartly recommend to everyone.
    To date, the only classics I’ve read that I considered obnoxiously ponderous were Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Walton’s The Compleat Angler and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. But to each his own, I suppose.
    While I now look back with some regret on the decades squandered reading sports magazines and watching television, I’m also grateful to have finally discovered the world of well-written literature. Perhaps my wasted years have enabled me to enjoy good books even more.
    Thanks for the post, Brad.

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  10. KP

    This post didn’t take the first time. I was wondering if all you readers out there would post your all-time favorite classics. So I can make a list.

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  11. Doug Ross

    KP asks for personal classics… I know my list will probably elicit a number of groans from the literati:
    Rand: Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead (naturally!)
    Irving: World According To Garp, Widow For One Year, Cider House Rules, Hotel New Hampshire, Prayer For Owen Meany (they actually teach it in high school now)
    Studs Terkel: Working
    Anything by Garrison Keillor, Carl Haiassen, Christopher Buckley, Lee Child, Robert Parker..
    A couple recent books I’ve read that were very good:
    “The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle” – a mute boy who raises a special breed of dog goes on the run after a crime is committed
    “Serena” – called a modern Macbeth set in the logging camps of Depression-era Asheville, NC. Author is Ron Rash, a prize winning poet at Western Carolina U.
    “Snowball” – the biography of Warren Buffett. 1000 pages long but a primer on what it takes to become rich the old fashioned way.

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  12. Capital A

    I nominate this thread as Warthime’s best ever. I am really enjoying the comments and suggestions of every poster. Though I am considered well-read by friends (relative praise by the standards of today’s society), I have missed many works that would be beneficial.
    In response to KP’s query, my top five, most enjoyable classic and semi-classic reads are as follows (with minor reviews):
    1. The Holy Bible (Old Testament minus Leviticus, ALL of the New Testament. Numerous “I wish I had said that!” moments when the text turns red.)
    2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (American Literature begins and ends with this book. Equally moral, funny and offensive (to some), this “kid’s book” only can be appreciated entirely by an adult.)
    3. The Hobbit (Terribly underrated and soon to become an awesome film. Lacks the melodrama of its sequels and is the better for it. Bilbo just wanted to eat apples with cheese and be left alone, then came the rowdy dwarven houseguests and altered the course of his life forever, though not for the better. Who can’t relate?)
    4. Shane (The blueprint for the modern Western. Whether you prefer John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, the archetypical tale of the “American ronin” begins here. You almost could finish this work in one sitting.)
    5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Ostensibly one big drug trip, but actually a chronicle of a failed generation and the America it had wrought. This book represents one lens through which a portion of the Baby Boomers should be judged, a chronicle of their early idealism, eventual failure to meet that standard and with their “greatest”, actual contribution to modern society being the propagation of American cynicism.)

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  13. KP

    Thanks, Doug and Capital A. I never miss a Robert Parker (we have something in common, Doug! Although I’m pretty sure that’s it), don’t mind Ayn Rand, hate Irving and Haiassen, not about to read Buffett, LOVE Fear and Loathing and everything else Hunter Thompson wrote.
    Here’s my list, just off the top of my head.
    For classics and semi-classics:
    To Kill a Mockingbird, of course,
    Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns,
    Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston,
    Confessions, Saint Augustine
    The Sound and the Fury, Faulker
    The Second Tree from the Corner, and anything else by E.B. White
    One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty
    Watership Down, Richard Adams
    For easy reading, James Lee Burke (if you’ve never read him, you should), John Connolly, John MacDonald, Sue Grafton.

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  14. gayguy

    Some Modern Classics:
    Lonesome Dove
    The Last Picture Show
    Texasville
    Duane’s Depressed
    When The Light Goes
    by Larry McMurtry
    White Noise
    Libra
    Underworld
    by Don DeLillo
    What I Lived For
    Blonde
    by Joyce Carol Oates
    The Executioner’s Song
    by Norman Mailer
    Midnight’s Children
    by Salman Rushdie

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  15. Cotton

    My list:
    Anna Karenina
    The Cossacks
    The Mayor of Casterbridge
    The Return of the Native
    Far From the Maddening Crowd
    A Tale of Two Cities
    Great Expectations
    For Whom the Bell Tolls
    Red Hills and Cotton
    The Great Gatsby
    Tender into the Night
    Their Eyes Were Watching God
    Of Mice and Men
    And Quiet Flows the Don
    Doctor Zhivago
    My Antonia
    O Pioneers
    The Stranger
    Madame Bovary
    The Chosen
    Fathers and Sons
    The Count of Monte Cristo
    House of the Seven Gables
    Life on the Mississippi
    Captains Courageous
    One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
    The Last of the Mohicans
    1984
    Pere Goriot
    Riders of the Purple Sage
    The Debacle
    Waverly
    A little long, but all books I would reread without hesitation.
    Also, not considered “classics” but “The Game,” by Ken Dryden, “Storm of Steel,” by Ernst Junger and “The Guns of August,” by Barbara Tuchman.

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  16. Bart

    Capital A, props to you. A good list, maybe a concise list of the best. I would like to add another author to it with your permission. As stated in my first post, James Thurber is an authentic talent when writing about and observing the everyday absurdity of the human condition. Many, many years ago, television in America tried an experiment and it almost succeeded. A little half hour television show was aired and it was based on Thurber’s works. It was called, “My World and Welcome to it”. A fantastic piece of entertainment that to me has never been paralled since.
    I agree with you on the value of this thread as being one of the best. When we all share a common positive, it does open the door to the potential of honest, intelligent discussion of the things that separate us. We may never come together on everything but at least we can make an honest attempt to reach an understanding.

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  17. Cookie

    A great post — my compliments to the chef!
    Reading great literature is a luxury you can afford to give yourself. It will give you back at least some of the ‘years the locust hath stolen.’
    ###
    Who or what is your locust? Don’t get me started!!!

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  18. Capital A

    This list could not come at a better time for me. I just finished my doctorate and now I have time to read what I want, not what I “have” to read. Thank you to all for sharing, and I am making a list of new and “rediscovered” works thanks to your suggestions.
    I finally am going to read Lonesome Dove as my friends find it so hard to believe that I am such a fan of the American mythology, yet I have never read his books nor seen any of their adaptations. I have heard that the character Blue Duck (?) is supposed to rival Magua for pure meanness, so I look forward to experiencing his particular brand of villainy.
    Bart, I will try some Solzhenitsyn on your suggestion. It should be fun as I am woefully ignorant of his style and common themes. We share Cooper as an influence so I trust your taste. The American Romantic period is my favorite in literature with our current, Post-modern period a close second in the running.
    Thanks for reminding me of Thurber, too, as I faintly remember those shows appearing on SCETV. (Weren’t there some spindly-lined caricatures in the opening credits?) I appreciate his wit and need to pick up some of his works as well so that I can sharpen my own!
    I just this minute saw that John Updike passed today. Run, rabbit, run and onward to heaven.

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  19. Bart

    Capital A, yes there were some cartoon characters at the beginning of the program and this particular offering was the first if I am correct to incorporate live and cartoon characters on a weekly television show.
    Don’t know if I want you to sharpen your wit any more than it already is. You may upset my down time when I retreat into the “allegorical caves” of my mind. :)
    I would suggest starting with “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” before reading “Gulag Archipelago”.

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  20. Brad Warthen

    Oh, wait, where is my brain?!?!?

    1984
    The Right Stuff
    Flowers for Algernon
    God’s Little Acre
    A Clockwork Orange
    Mr. Roberts

    … just to cite some I just saw on my bookshelf. Those first two especially. And you can add Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

    And yes, I saw that about Updike. Rabbit Requiescat In Pace. I read Rabbit, Run and one of the sequels, but they were not among my favorites, I’m sorry to say at this moment…

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  21. Capital A

    Crud! I forgot to include my man Conrad! I guess I would put Heart of Darkness at number six. My favorite part is when the unnamed narrator (Willard in Apocalypse Now) meets with the wife of Kurtz to discuss her husband’s character.
    In that section of the novella, there is so much currently unpopular and politically incorrect truth and honesty about the separate realities that men and women inhabit. That portion alone qualifies it as an eternal classic.
    Bart, I will follow that path of reading you suggested. Here’s to finding a new influence!

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  22. Capital A

    Correction: Marlow meets with Kurtz’s fiancee, not his wife.
    Apologies for “misremembering”! All of this talk of great literature has me geekin’.

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  23. Karen McLeod

    Can’t resist adding some to the list (some are definitely not considered classics!)
    The Decameron
    Canturbury Tales (a wonderful playing about with styles!)
    Shamela (One may have to read Richardson’s “Pamela” first to truly enjoy this satiric gem.)
    “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell
    “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card
    “Poisonwood Bible” Barbara Kingsolver

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  24. Lee Muller

    The Cossacks – worth reading again.
    Quo Vadis – similar, even better
    And Quiet Flows the Don – same vein
    A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – watch the movie outside on a cold night
    Papillon
    Riders of the Purple Sage – starting it next week, 3rd time
    The Virginian – simply perfect
    Shane
    Fathers and Sons
    West with the Night – hardback on the way
    African Hunter – James Mellon (good luck finding it)

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  25. p.m.

    Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (if political correctness keeps this novel from being read — it’s already banned in some schools — humanity will be much the poorer for it) and anything else Twain wrote.
    Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and Death Is a Lonely Business (and, yeah, Fahrenheit 451, and The Martian Chronicles, or whatever the man wrote on a napkin, so commandingly innocent is his style.
    Robert Heinlein’s The Book of Job (I wouldn’t recommend The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, though)
    Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw
    Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude
    Graham Greene’s The Third Man
    Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan (novel) and Harrison Bergeron (short story)
    Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
    That’s enough. Except for Huck Finn, which always bears repeating, I tried not to go where others here have been.
    But I have realized something. There’s too much I haven’t read.

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  26. Bart

    Forgot about the unofficial guidebook for all of us who were rebel wannabees, “Catcher in the Rye” by Salinger. What would life be without a bottle and a full bladder to express yourself and honor someone close to you who has fallen at the same time. Then, we have the other classic for the early protesters against the military establishment, “Catch 22” by Heller. Yes, I do consider it a classic. And to add to the experience of reading a good book of the times, there were a lot of great songs to enhance the pleasure. Will never forget the Peter, Paul, and Mary concerts in Charlotte and the songs from the Kingston Trio that touched us somewhere deep inside. Yep, at one time, I guess I could have been labeled a “liberal” to some degree by today’s definition.
    Then we have another generational book, “The Graduate” that was a great expression of our frustrations and unending quest to get laid and the conflicts we had trying to cross over the final threshold from the netherland between juvenile and adult.
    Darned if this hasn’t been one of the best experiences I have had in a long time. Thanks Brad for getting this started. In closing, I want to parrot what p.m. said. After spending an afternoon at Barnes & Noble, the realization hits me of all the books I haven’t read nor will have time to read. I am grateful to have eyes to see, an education allowing me to be able to read, and an inquisitive mind that allows me to explore through the words of others, the diversity of thought and processes of the eternal changes we humans are constantly experiencing.

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  27. Brad Warthen

    Graham Greene! I can’t believe I forgot him!
    Allow me to add The Power and the Glory. It’s magnificent.

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  28. Brad Warthen

    I’m reading the WSJ obit on Updike over breakfast (can’t link it right now because I’m typing this on my Blackberry). It persuades me that maybe I’ve neglected him, and need to go read something beyond the first two Rabbit books…

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  29. Brad Warthen

    Here’s a link to that Updike story, if you can read it (I don’t know whether you have to be a subscriber or not).

    At least I have the option of reading more Updike for the first time. That’s not the case with everyone. I’m mindful of what Hemingway wrote upon the death of Conrad:

    … I saved up four that I would not read until I needed them badly…. Two months in Toronto used up the four books. One after another I borrowed them from a girl who had all of his books on a shelf, bound in blue leather, and had never read any of them…. When morning came I had used up all my Conrad like a drunkard, and felt like a young man who has blown his patrimony. But, I thought, he will write more stories. He has lots of time…

    But as it turned out, he didn’t.

    That passage, written in 1924 for the Transatlantic Review, made a strong-enough impression on me that for several decades I saved A Farewell To Arms, keeping it in reserve, not wanting to use up all my Hemingway. A couple of years back, I read it because my youngest daughter was reading it in school, and I wanted to be able to share it with her. We had a couple of discussions about it, but I don’t think she was crazy about it. And in fact, I must admit I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it 30-40 years ago.

    The good news is that I have some Conrad left.

    Let me close this comment with one more paragraph from that Hemingway appreciation of Conrad, which I really liked:

    It is agreed by most of the people I know that Conrad is a bad writer, just as it is agreed that T.S. Eliot is a good writer. If I knew that by grinding Mr. Eliot into a fine dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad’s grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear, looking very annoyed at the forced return, and commence writing I would leave for London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.

    Good writing, that.

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  30. gayguy

    oh yeah,WALKER PERCY
    my fave,Lancelot(hyperbole!)
    LOVE Conrad.Of course,The Secret Sharer beds w/me;)
    and top 5 songs:
    1 Strawberry Fields Forever
    2 The Unfaithful Servant
    Far as I can get…which reminds me, Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation by Philip Norman
    Makes you feel really old when Tony Judt starts talking about how important they were…
    ps-if the Uma Thurman in Hysterical Blindness will marry me,I’ll change my name to straightguy

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  31. Capital A

    Warthime, thank you for that quote concerning Conrad, and I second that emotion (to paraphrase another great writer in an alternate literary format)! I know Joseph Conrad, and Eliot is no Jospeh Conrad.
    Bart, thanks for the realization that I’m not alone in my way of thinking. Like you, I have looked around in the library or book store and the epiphany struck — I will will be dead long before I’m ever able to complete reading even a quarter of what I would like. I came to much the same conclusion concerning possible travel spots, as well.
    Guess I better get busy reading or get busy dying. I want to be well Red.

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  32. Brad Warthen

    Nice line about busy reading or busy dying.
    You know what? I sort of find it reassuring that there are more good things to read than I could possibly read in my lifetime. I feel oppressed that one day I WILL get to the end of the Aubrey-Maturin series (but comforted by the thought that, as I’ve already found, they remain a joy to RE-read).
    When I hear about people who don’t know what to do with themselves in retirement, I find it very hard to identify. I know what I would do (if I’m ever able to afford to retire): Read and write, read and write. I would do other stuff as other people needed me to, but with my own free time I would read and write. And watch the occasional good movie, I suppose.

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  33. Cotton

    Brad,
    Interesting comment about Hemingway not wanting to “use up” Conrad’s books. I feel the same way about Thomas Hardy’s works.
    I’ve read six of Hardy’s books and thoroughly enjoyed them all, and have “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” sitting on my shelf, but I’m reluctant to pick it up because his prose is, obviously, a finite resource.
    I know I can go back and reread his works, and have already done that with “The Return of the Native,” “Jude the Obscure” and “The Mayor Casterbridge,” but there’s something oddly invigorating about an unread novel which you anticipate will be wonderful.
    It’s almost like an heirloom or untapped energy reserve – you don’t want to squander it needlessly. I’ll get around to it someday, along with some of Hardy’s other lesser known works, but I want to make sure I can enjoy to its fullest.

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  34. Bart

    Capital A,
    I have previously posted that it has been my good fortune to have traveled much of the world and the United States in particular. Being able to spend a lot of time in Puerto Rico was a great experience and eye opening to the head on collision of the third and modern world cultures and economies and the resulting impact on the citizens of PR.
    At this juncture of my life, it is interesting to sit back and watch the changes in places where I spent a lot of time. Dubai is one where so much has changed since my time there and to witness the building of a city that once had the distinction of exporting the finest pearls in the world to the financial mecca it is today. By the way, Robin Moore wrote another book, “Dubai”. I was fortunate enough to have stayed in the same house where he lived when he wrote the book. It is a good read for an adventure novel and in many ways, an accurate portrayal of how life was at the time the novel was written.
    Anyway, just a thought about travelling to places we dream of going. Now, the only place I really want to visit is the Holocaust Museum in Washington and take another tour of our nation’s capital. Sometimes we need to be reminded of just how great a country we really are.

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  35. p.m.

    Y’all have reminded me how hopeless I felt when there was no Sherlock Holmes nor Agatha Christie left to read.
    Thus it puzzles me that I never completely finished with Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury and others I had a real hankering for.
    Of course, it also bothers me that I’ve seen every Star Trek and Star Trek: Next Generation.
    But I still have a lot of Shakespeare left, so I guess it’s going to be all right.

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  36. Brad Warthen

    While a dead author’s works are definitely finite, occasionally we can be surprised by a gem published posthumously. Did you ever read Twain’s Letters from the Earth?

    Of course, often they are not gems. I’m glad I read Islands in the Stream, but I could see why it had not been published earlier.

    One of my favorite personal literary anecdotes (I’ve told it here before, but this is for those who didn’t see it before): In 1976, I interviewed Mary Hemingway (4th wife) when she was promoting a book. It was over lunch at a hotel in Memphis…. She had a bloody Mary; I had that Dutch beer that comes in the green bottles. It is good when it is cold and the weather is hot. This one was very good, and it did not mount to the head the way those things sometimes do. We spoke of fishing and of writing, but we were careful not to speak too much of either. If you speak of it too much, you lose it…

    Sorry. I’ll stop the cheesy impersonation now. Anyway, I was sharing the interview time with this pompous guy who wrote for some magazine there in Memphis, and at some point he was bloviating about how WONDERFUL Islands in the Stream was, as though it were Hemingway’s best work or something, and I got irritated enough to say, “Personally, I thought the middle section seemed out of place and dragged.”

    Mrs. Hemingway said, “You know, I think you’re right. We debated it, and almost cut it out” before publishing it.

    I was so proud of myself…

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  37. p.m.

    No, I never read Letters from the Earth, but I did read all seven or eight pages of The Innocents at Home that Amazon provided, thanks to your link.
    And that reminds me, another reason I haven’t read all of some authors’ works, to be honest, is that the lesser efforts can dim the glow of the great ones, or seem even lesser themselves if you happen to have read one of the great ones lately.
    Yes, McCartney wrote Yesterday, Fool on the Hill, Hey Jude and Temporary Secretary. Picasso drew scribbles on napkins for francs. Everyone has less than glorious moments.
    I can tell from the seven or eight pages I read on Amazon that Innocents at Home won’t measure up to Huckleberry Finn, but I haven’t read that lately, so I could read that “new” one if I could get a hold of it.
    The publishing job, however, looked pretty rough. I found a typo or two on the example pages.
    I envy your interview with Mary Hemingway. Your Hemingway knockoff reminds me that when I was working on my master’s, I wrote a paper in Twain’s voice in an attempt to disguise my real lack of depth on whatever subject had been assigned for the paper.
    It worked like a charm because I caught the tone well enough and unknowingly used the expression “sold me short” in the paper. The professor gushed about that, asking me how I knew Twain was extremely fond of that expression.
    I smiled and said nothing, thinking it sounded Twainish to me, but that was all I knew.
    I was so proud of myself…

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  38. KP

    Along the lines of dying before you can read all you want, do y’all ever worry about missing all the fun books that will be written after you die? I really hate that thought.

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  39. Capital A

    KP, I don’t worry about that because I share Mark Twain’s belief that you get everything you ever wanted when you die.
    One of my wishes is to read all of the fun books and comic books/graphic novels that are written after I die.
    I’ll be on cloud 9. Bring your collection, and we’ll trade our respective “bests” after reading.
    If so, we can also rewrite the American Bard’s famous quote as: Heaven for the climate, [Heaven] for the company.

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  40. Karen McLeod

    Let me add a few:
    Bocaccio “Decameron”
    Chaucer “Canturbury Tales”
    Fielding “Shamela” (warning: you may have to read Richardson’s “Pamela” to fully appreciate this one.)
    Mary Doria Russell “The Sparrow” “A Thread of Grace”
    Barbara Kingsolver “Poisonwood Bible”
    Ellis Peters The Cadfael series
    Orson Scott Card “Ender’s Game”
    Others have mentioned many of the others, so I’ll limit my list to these.

    Reply

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