Al E. Gator

This is Albert E. Gator.  “My friends call me Al.”

Carved from basswood, about three inches tall, pattern taken from Gary Batte’s book, Carving Crazy Critters.

Al went to my mom, who collects alligators.

Moby Dick

Call me Jeb.

In the course of years hoarding books of all description I have acquired quite a large number. It is perhaps unsurprising that I have not yet read through my entire library, as often a new volume will be added that I must needs read most hastily. The list of unread titles has grown to such proportions that were I to consume one per day–a most unlikely achivevment considering that the bibliography consists of tomes penned by such writers as Stephen King, Leon Uris, James A. Michner, and others for whom the word “edit” apparently has no meaning–I would be reading for more than a decade and would in the intervening years surely bypass the opportunity to consume manuscripts of much greater value than what I currently possess. However, with such a variety from which to choose I never am at a loss for something with which to entertain myself.

It came to pass that my high school English instructor–some 30 years after that worthy individual and I had last communicated in person–mentioned the book that forms the title of this entry, and I realized that in all my wide ranging reading I had failed to digest that particular novel. A most grievous omission, I’ve been told, as it seems that any well read American must be able to list this story among the best that he has read. So being, I took it upon myself to seek out and correct this deficit in my admittedly haphazard education.

Obtaining a suitable copy of Mr. Melville’s most famous work turned out to be a matter of just a few minutes, as the title existed in the aforementioned library that my wife and I maintain in our home, correctly placed on the shelf in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. When one has only a handful of books, one can haphazardly place them hither and yon, and recall with little effort the location of a particular volume. As one ages and the number of books grows, memory becomes a more unreliable device and thus requires that some artificial order be placed on the positioning of things lest they be lost but for a volume-by-volume search that would without question occupy more time than the actual reading.

In the nearly half-century I have been blessed with existence on this mortal plane, I have heard many things, mostly good, about Moby Dick. I do not recall, however, any mention of the book’s great weight. At five hundred forty three pages (in the faux-leather-bound edition that graces our collection), the volume is much larger than I had expected. Size, of course, is no indication of a story’s quality although it has often been noted that a longer story must needs be better than a short one, if only to hold the reader’s interest for such a duration. Boring is never forgivable, but at least one can endure an exceedingly dull story if it is short.

On an aside, I’ve often heard that Moby Dick starts with the words, “Call me Ishmael.” Perhaps the story itself starts with those words, but at least in my edition the book starts with a dozen or more pages of historical quotes–some quite obscure–about whales. In retrospect a quote or two or perhaps one full page at most would have been sufficient, I think, to give the impression that the author was intending. But filling fully two percent of the book with such drivel tries the reader’s patience at the very beginning. Had I not been convinced over years of positive reviews that I was in for a delightful read, I would have taken this early waste of time as a warning. But I soldiered on, putting aside my annoyance at the gratuitous quotes, and began the story proper.

Ishmael begins his tale quite engagingly, describing the conditions under which he found himself signing on to a whaling vessel in the great whaling capital of the world: Nantucket. With but few exceptions, the story of his trip to Nantucket, his meeting and new friendship with Queequeg, his initial interview with the owners of the good ship Pequod, and everything leading up to departure was interesting and entertaining. By the time the lines were cast off and the Pequod was leaving Nantucket harbor, I felt as one would be expected to feel at the start of a great voyage; looking forward to the promised adventure on the High Seas.

Sadly, as so often happens with grand adventures, the reality is much less than the anticipation. After preparing for much excitement, the ship is loaded, crew aboard, farewells shared, lines cast, and once the mast disappears over the horizon, it becomes apparent that the “grand adventure” amounts to day upon dreary day of nothing but the sea, the wind in the sails, and endless drudgery: working, eating, sleeping, and perhaps from time to time hanging on for dear life as Mother Nature does her best to capsize, crash, rip apart, or otherwise destroy the ship and thus leave you stranded in the boundless sea, clinging to the flotsam hoping against all odds that another ship will come by to extract you from the waves before your strength gives out and you slip into the deep, never to surface again.

After the first one hundred pages, the good ship Pequod sets sail and Ishmael becomes tiresome, regaling us with page upon ponderous page of information about whales, whaling, and all manner of things tangentially related, occasionally returning to the ship and crew as if reminding himself that there is a story in here somewhere, and along the way relating one or two mildly entertaining bits that ultimately leave the reader unsatisfied. The experience is reminiscent of being stranded at the old sailors’ home, listening to its most seasoned occupant who has perhaps three teeth left and half that many brain cells still functioning as he alternately sips his ale (“Avast! In my day we had proper grog, not this watered down swill that passes for ale among you landlubbers”) rambling tirelessly on about his career on the sea.

One could forgive the asides and the occasional insertion of a fact or three about the business of whaling but for a few egregious errors that the author, a supposedly well regarded writer in his time, should have known better than to commit so voluminously. Whereas it’s important that the reader understand at least some small amount of nautical and whaling jargon, such information should overall be brief, and be presented to the reader in an engaging style. The author’s presentation here is atrocious; as though he took essays written for popular periodicals of the time and slapped them into the text, arranging and lightly editing them so that they seem to fit into the story, but to anybody giving it more than a cursory glance–say, the attention required to actually read the book–the story looks like a cartoon ransom note. Furthermore, and more to the author’s discredit, those informative asides are too often filled with speculation, half truths, and downright fabrications all of which are presented as fact.

Throughout, Melville illustrates his facility with language by never letting a simple word do the work of a convoluted sentence. Nor does he skimp on the long, rambling, and ultimately incoherent paragraphs, as if the value of the writing is increased by having to read over the passage four or five times just to pick out a simple concept that could have been related in one or two short, simple, and interesting sentences. One can hardly escape the thought that the Levianthanic prose is a great joke played on the reader by the author. A grand joke it is, too, as countless learned scholars and critics continue to lavish unctuous praise on the book a century and a half after it was penned, despite the offenses so obviously committed by the author.

Finally, after wading through hundreds of pages of irrelevant asides with a few colorful anecdotes (related again with cetacean ponderosity) thrown in, and an occasional reference to Captain Ahab and perhaps a half-dozen queries of, “Have you seen the white whale?” we reach the end of the journey: the spotting and chase of the book’s eponymous antagonist–or, depending on your point of view, protagonist. This climax, too, is muted by the less than exciting writing, and the reader is left at the end wondering why he wasted countless precious hours (and, before the advent of electricity, one must conclude, precious candle wick or lamp oil) struggling with the tome and hoping against all reasonable expectation that there was some redeeming value to be found in the book.

I find it curious and more than a bit humorous that in a book about whaling–an occupation in which the primary goal is to keep the blubber and throw out the meat–the author (it’s unlikely that any reputable editor would have allowed this manuscript to leave his desk unscathed) decided to keep the meat and the blubber as well. It is little surprise, considering that the book is easily more than three-fifths blubber outright, and the meat is so marbled with fat that even a light trimming would reduce it by half, and a further treatment by a skilled editor would complete the job of turning this overweight, ponderous and ultimately dull sperm whale of a novel into a sleek and playful dolphin of a story that one could read and enjoy in less than two hours.

As a cure for insomnia–a condition that seemingly afflicts ever more people as time goes on–I would heartily recommend Melville’s Moby Dick. Other potential uses would be casual placement in a conspicuous location in order to impress visitors with the quality of your reading material. The tome would also serve well as a paperweight or, in a pinch, fireplace kindling. I would not, however, recommend it for the stated purpose–reading–unless you are compelled to do so by some outside force (say, a school assignment). Perhaps those who study mass delusions, too, would like to read the book in an attempt to understand how, after one hundred and sixty years, people still cling to the ridiculous notion that the book’s unsubtle and superficial symbolism, use of language, and incoherent exploration of themes (some controversial) qualify it as a treasure of world literature.

But isn’t that what the Web is for?

The Terms of Use for the site includes the following (the emphasis is mine):

You may use this Site only for purposes expressly permitted by this Site. You may not use this Site for any other purpose, including any commercial purpose, without YOBI’s express prior written consent. For example, you may not (and may not authorize any other party to) (i) co-brand this Site, or (ii) frame this Site, or (iii) hyper-link to this Site, without the express prior written permission of an authorized representative of YOBI. For purposes of these Terms of Use, “co-branding” means to display a name, logo, trademark, or other means of attribution or identification of any party in such a manner as is reasonably likely to give a user the impression that such other party has the right to display, publish, or distribute this Site or content accessible within this Site. You agree to cooperate with YOBI in causing any unauthorized co-branding, framing or hyper-linking immediately to cease.

Far be it from me to violate their Terms, which is why the name of their site, above, is not hyperlinked.

I thought this particular idiocy had been eliminated years ago.  If you don’t want people to link to you, why the heck are you on the Web at all?  I think somebody needs to rein in the lawyers again.


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