Over a few beers last week, one of my sailing buddies, David Duquette and I were chatting about things nautical, as you do on a wet winter's evening. We got to discussing books about the sea. I was blathering on about all my sailing books and the merits of Robin Knox-Johnston versus Moitessier. A long discussion about Patrick O'Brian's masterwork ensued. David then said: "..and of course there's Melville." "Ah, yes", I said sheepishly inspecting my shoes.
Pregnant silence. I had to confess that I have not read Melville or the "Greatest American Novel", Moby Dick. Embarrassing really, for a so-called lover of books about the sea.
I grew up in England and it was not on the curriculum at school. We had Dickens, Jane Austen and that crowd rammed down our throats. I am sorry, it was hard for me to enjoy something that's supposed to be a pleasure when it had a test at the end of it. This was made worse in my case as I went to a French school (it's a long story) and I was forced to read Balzac, Racine and Flaubert at gun point. Like many teenagers, the force-feeding and subsequent interrogation put me off great literature.
Since I moved to the US, I have often heard people talk about Melville with the same facial expression I reserve for George Eliot. They were forced to read it as teenagers, so the vast majority think of Moby Dick as an alternative to water-boarding.
David waxed lyrical about Melville - the story, the adventure, the sea, blabla. I am at a vulnerable moment right now. I have three books on the go and none of them compelling enough to want to commit to. It sold me on giving the Big Fish a go.
He suggested that I start with Billy Budd, one of Melville's later works - a short story about life in the 19th century navy. If I liked that I should take on The Whale. I took his advice and bought both on Amazon. Moby Dick arrived first and it is a beautifully published edition with a wonderful foreword by Nathaniel Philbrick, so I got started on that first. Four chapters in and so far I am genuinely enjoying it. Only another 131 chapters to go.
I am a notoriously slow, highly distractible reader and find long books intimidating. As a child, I was traumatized by being made to read any book longer than a hundred pages. My mother and sister still tease me about this.
I will take my time. I may stop and come back to it if it starts to feel too much like homework. It could be a long time before I find out if Ahab kills the fish. Please don't spoil the end for me. I will need something to keep me going.
Wish me luck. I will let you know how I get on.