The Breakfast Table

A Melville Moment

Dear Squid,

Well, I had to pull Moby Dick out of my suitcase where it was already ready to accompany me to Denver. I didn’t realize we were going to reveal our reading habits to the world. Isn’t that a little personal? (And I thought you were the privacy nut in our relationship.) Anyway, it makes us sound so damn cozy. Married With Melville. This makes me want to immediately explain to the small handful of people who happen to be reading this exchange that when we decided to read Moby Dick again, together, it seemed like such a sweet dusty eccentric thing to do. I remember gravitating to the book (or so I thought) because the great white whale sort of reminded me of Jetsunma–the elusive Tibetan Buddhist lama who is the subject of my own book. And I suspected that you wanted us to read it as yet another way to drag me to your beloved homeland, New England, either geographically or mentally.

So it was weird to discover–a couple weeks after we’d started the book–that there was some kind of Melville Moment happening in the western world and we were only part of a trend. In this week’s New York Observer, David Michaelis reviews a new Melville bio by Elizabeth Hardwick. And in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, I sadly noticed that the seafaring writer Tim Severin has a new book called In Search of Moby Dick: Quest for the White Whale about whale-hunting with contemporary Indonesians. There’s also another new book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick.

How does this happen? We thought we were being so original, so special, so ourselves … We didn’t read A Perfect Storm–certainly not! We steered clear of The Hungry Ocean too. Of course! So how did we wind up becoming, unbeknownst to us, part of an embarrassing tidal wave of interest in Melville? It’s sort of like the way we were so smugly not yuppies all these years, only to discover now that, according to David Brooks, we’re just Bobos. We all want to believe in our specialness, I guess, and want to feel our lives are unique. But here’s yet another reminder that they aren’t. We only think we are acting on our own–and being creative–and meanwhile these invisible forces are blowing us about in our tiny boats.

I’ll call when I arrive.