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On Reading Moby-Dick

2013 January 23

Last month, my book club decided to try something a little different, and read a classic. It doesn’t get much more classic than Moby-Dick, so despite the heft, we decided to dive right in. (pun intended).  Herman Melville’s giant of a book about whaling and Ahab’s doomed quest is hailed as a masterpiece of American literature, a title I don’t contest. However, I can’t say that it was exactly an enjoyable read for me.

I began around Christmas time, wanting to give myself plenty of time to finish the book for our meeting. It’s a good thing I started so early, because it ended up taking me far longer than I expected. A little more than halfway through, I had hit a wall. I found myself dreading pulling out the huge book on the subway (where I do a large chunk of my reading), only to stare at pages of dense text about the intricacies of whaling, full of terms I didn’t know and allusions I didn’t quite understand. Was I too dumb for Moby-Dick?

After I hit the wall, I decided to take a step back. I left the book at home, and started a new one to bring on the train with me. Every night, I would set aside a half hour or so to read a few pages from Moby-Dick, but no more than 15-20 at a time. Doing that, I was much more able to appreciate the subtleties of language and the genius sentences because I wasn’t just staring, resenting the page in front of me. I knew that by reading small chunks, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and I wouldn’t be spending the next hour hopelessly frustrated and bored. And so, I finished Moby-Dick the day before our book club meeting. I vanquished my literary white whale.

Have you read a book that took you forever to get through? How did you finish it?


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4 Responses Post a comment
  1. January 23, 2013

    The book I’m reading right now is taking me forever! My beau even said to me last night as we were on the subway (and I had it out to read) “I think this is the longest I’ve ever seen you take to finish a book”. It’s Nixonland, and I find it really interesting, but it’s not the most enthralling non-fiction book I’ve ever read. I’ve finished one or two books since I started it, and I’m still not even halfway done!

    How will I finish it? Very slowly, and with plenty of breaks for more exciting books in between.

  2. January 23, 2013

    Ugh, I had to read Moby Dick in college, and let me be honest: I never finished (no one tell Dr. Stephenson). I got really far in too (to chapter 103 or so!) and just GAVE UP. I was exhausted. I knew how it was going to end. I just no longer cared. And – wouldn’t you know – I passed the class anyway.

    About few years ago my aunt gifted me her tattered copy of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, saying it was one of her favorite books ever. While it isn’t as cumbersome as Moby Dick, it’s not a quick read either. I got about 1/2 way through, and having read a Dreiser tale in the past, I figured out exactly how it was going to end. And it wasn’t going to be pretty. It was all going to be downhill, and fast. So I just stopped reading it. I still have guilt about it. I told my aunt I loved it. If you look on my goodreads shelf, it’s still on the “currently reading” shelf, where it’s been since March 2009. Whoops.

  3. January 23, 2013

    Good timing on this- I’ve owned Moby Dick for years but have never gotten around to reading it. I was thinking about reading it once I finish the next couple of books on my nightstand!

    There have been books I’ve struggled to finish, but nothing as long or as dense as Moby Dick.

  4. January 24, 2013

    Megan–I also had a professor named Dr. Stephenson (E. Roger) who assigned Moby Dick!

    I guess my biggest reading project was Clarissa, which is, I believe, the longest novel in the English language. It took months! I kept myself interested by writing irreverent recaps on my old blog. Another major reading accomplishment was Middlemarch.

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