A Great Chase Scene at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
I love the classics. In high school, I worked my way, one ablative at
a time, through The Aeneid and Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic
War. In college, I read Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles in
translation. Beowulf and the Bede gave me a taste for the Dark Ages
that would eventually lead me to write The Oblate's Confession. And
of course I've never been able to get enough of Shakespeare. As for
the modern classics ... well, I cut my teeth on Twain and Dickens,
gained what passes for a political conscience from Steinbeck's The
Grapes of Wrath, and found my writer's touchstone in Virginia Woolf's
To the Lighthouse.
Still, like many people, I sometimes find myself having to
admit—spluttering out excuses as to why—that I haven't read one of the
canon's most important works. I've attempted War and Peace several
times, and never managed to get past page 30. Though I am a
Southerner born and bred, I find Faulkner's prose overwrought and
overrated. And many of the nineteenth century classics—Silas
Marner, The Last of the Mohicans, Tess of the D'Urbervilles—leave
me high and dry.
But our patrons never cease trying to educate me. The other day a
gentleman came up to the Information Desk and asked where he might
find a book about Patagonia. As we talked, he told me that, while he
loved to read, he never read fiction, as he thought it frivolous. I
have heard this sentiment so many times now (usually from men, usually
in a tone that implies a certain pride in the judgment), that I
scarcely listen to it anymore. So he surprised me when he added, as
if it were an obvious corollary, that he made an exception when it
came to Moby Dick. Moby Dick, he assured me, “is the greatest
book ever written.” You can imagine what it felt like when I—the
defender of all great fiction—had to admit I had never read Moby
Not that I hadn't tried. We were supposed to read it in high school,
but at that age, finding its obsessive attention to whaling minutiae
boring, I shamelessly resorted to Cliff Notes...and barely squeaked
through the exam. In my early twenties I gave it another shot, and
this time found its abrupt changes in narrative style unnecessarily
destructive to the story its author was trying to tell ... and with all
the vanity of a would-be writer, wrote the whole thing off as a
failure of craft.
But there was something about this patron's enthusiasm for the book
that jogged loose a bit of latent high school guilt. I knew I should
have read the blasted thing, and at my age I'd better hurry up and do
it before I lost the chance. So I wandered over into the M's, found
Melville, found five copies of Moby Dick on the shelf, opened the
one nearest to hand, and felt my spirits sink. Page after page of
tiny, dense text, paragraph after mind-numbing paragraph of
intimidatingly antiquated prose. No, I told myself, it is a fool's
errand to try to read a book just because someone long since gone to
his or her (doubtless well-deserved) grave called it a “classic.” I'm
above that sort of thing. I have better things to do with my time.
But before I could slink off, metaphysical tail between my legs, I
noticed one of the Moby Dicks looked different from the others.
Bound in black leather, with an intaglio of a whale impressed in gold
on its cover, its pages trimmed in a similar, reflective gold, this
thing was no cheap knockoff. Indeed, it had the heft and feel of a
bible. And so, despite grave misgivings, I opened the book and
found—oh happy days!—the print to be of a civilized size and font:
easy on the eye, comforting to the mind. I checked it out.
Mr. Pike taught English my junior year of high school, and if he's
still alive somewhere (and I certainly hope he is), I would like to
tell him that, only half a century after the fact, little Billy Peak
has finally completed his reading assignment for the second and third
weeks of first term. And what is more, Mr. Pike, he enjoyed it.
Still, I think I would have to take exception, even after all these
years, to your calling Moby Dick a classic novel. It is many
fascinating things—labor history, Shakespearean theater, Yankee
boosterism, cetacean biology text, history of the mid-nineteenth
century whaling industry, study of comparative religion, and even a
bit of a Joycean romp ... but a novel? I think there's the framework of
a novel lurking in there somewhere beneath all the astonishing
marginalia, but it isn't a novel, at least not in the classical sense
of the word.
But oh, the marginalia! You don't just hunt whales in Moby Dick, you
come to know them inside and out, to feel their anguish when mortally
wounded, their mastery over the depths, their triumph in the escape.
Melville's sperm whales, though they lack a face, are possessed of a
“contemplative brow,” think lofty, noble thoughts. Who knew that two
such things could co-exist in a 19th century harpooneer, greed for the
whale's oil and sympathy for its life? Thanks to the Talbot County
Free Library and a nameless patron who dreamt of Tierra del Fuego, I
have walked the decks of the Pequod with Ishmael and Queequeg, watched
Captain Ahab go slowly mad, chased—from one side of the planet to the
other—the great, the classic, great white whale.