Wednesday, March 15, 2006

On the idea of the usefulness of literature in general, and Moby-Dick in particular

One of the problems I have with the instrumental view of literature, the idea that there is something to “get” from literature, is that it tends, especially at the high school level, to lead to attempts to explain complex stories through their symbolism. Moby-Dick is nature, Ahab is man attempting to overcome it. Or the whale is death. Or progress. Or some such thing. It’s an approach that, in the hands of a dedicated teacher working with engaged students, as part of an overall attempt to understand how and why Melville wrote the book, and why we might want to read it, could be productive. But as presented by an indifferent teacher to distracted students as a way to answer questions four through seven of the quiz that came with the study guide, it’s reductive, tedious, and as likely as not to turn students another step away from literature. In that case, I'd rather a teacher hand out some Stephen King or John Grisham or something—anything to get students to see that reading can be engrossing and surprising.

Moby-Dick should probably not be taught in high school. It seems like a book that a person should come to on his or her own terms, later. But if it is to be taught in high school, I think a teacher at my old high school, Mr. Harrison, who retired the year before I would have been in his class, had the right idea of how to do so. Several times in the fall of 1989, I walked by his classroom and heard him reading Moby-Dick aloud. That, it seemed, was a large part of his method of teaching it. He’d read aloud. But he didn’t read Moby-Dick so much as declaim it, preach it, shout it, chant it. It was captivating.

And that’s how I usually think about Moby-Dick. Jim from my office says he thinks it’s a book about work, about these guys trapped on a whale ship for a three-year cruise, and all the things they have to do and put up with, and about how Melville knew that work, whatever we may wish to pretend, is what we all do with most of our time. He’s got a point, and a fairly convincing one. But I think it’s really a book about Melville and some thing he has to say to you.

I imagine that he sits down next to you at the bar—where you were only planning to have a quick one on your way home—and starts telling you a story. He's interesting, funny, even charming. And he’s telling you about things you know nothing about, so you buy him a drink and stick around a little longer, but—and here’s the part you don’t remember very clearly—then there are a lot of empty glasses in front of you both, and he’s leaning very close to you and has your shoulder in a grip a little too tight to be comfortable. One minute, he’s whispering conspiratorially, and then he SHOUTS in your ear, then he's mumbling more or less to himself. You aren't sure you have any idea what he’s talking about now, but you’ve definitely missed your last train home, so you might as well stick around and see if you can find out.

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