Category Archives: Herman Melville

Links: Pocket Symphony

James Ellroy has very strong opinions about classical music: “‘I dig late Mozart,'” he says. ‘There’s a hair of dissonance, there’s more vavoom, the late symphonies. I got Böhm, the Berlin Philharmonic. I love the 21st Piano Concerto – “Elvira Madigan” – Sinfonia Concertante, the Clarinet Concerto. But that’s it. Haydn you can have, Handel you can have, Baroque I can’t listen to.'”

Matthew Yglesias
is still catching hell for liking Moby-Dick. A Mother Jones blogger retorts: “I didn’t care for it. I’ll spare you the details since I’d just be opening myself up to quite justified charges of philistinism, and who needs that?” Yglesias did make an error in saying that you can’t understand America without it; the only book for which that’s true is the Bible, and then just the angry parts.

“Mailer felt obliged to make literature, or better yet a demonic theoretical broadside, out of his hump-piles and pungent smoke.”

Montana: America’s new home for werewolf fantasy novels.

The Ransom Center has a host of online materials relating to Edgar Allan Poe, in relation to the exhibit that opens there next week.

Eudora Welty‘s One Writer’s Beginnings helped keep Mary Chapin Carpenter from becoming miserable when she was starting to play her songs at D.C. clubs.

Production of the film version of Don DeLillo‘s End Zone is on hold.

The Chicago Tribune‘s Julia Keller, who once worried in public whether a graphic-novel adaptation of the 9/11 Commission Report represented “an advance or retreat for civilization” (no, really), is now sweating a graphic-novel adaptation to Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451: “I find myself wishing graphic novels weren’t so hip; their popularity has made me question my own motives. Am I just trying to sound cool? Is an affection for graphic novels by anyone over 25 simply the literary equivalent of buying a sports car or getting a face-lift?”

There’s a seminar on September 15 on whether Mark Twain would use Twitter. For some reason, Michael Buckley will be a part of this; frankly, I’d be more interested in reading a long essay by Twain about “What the Buck?”

It’s Labor Day weekend, so I likely won’t be around here until after the holiday. In the meantime, you can read the story about Studs Terkel, Labor Day, the yuppie couple, and the bus stop in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—over and over again.

They Would Prefer Not To

I suspect that there are a few bright thoughts about books in the 160 comments to a post by Moby-Dick enthusiast Matthew Yglesias. But, because the very first line of the very first comment is “Fuck Moby Dick,” I’m dissuaded from exploring further. Yglesias’ post is inspired by a New York Times story in which a New York University professor suggests that no child is interested in reading Moby-Dick. The story as a whole is an interesting look at an experiment to let elementary and middle-school students pick their own reading assignments; though it’s not quite anything-goes, some are permitted to read Twilight novels and James Patterson thrillers.

Benjamin Dueholm talks a lot of sense about the matter in his post, “A Child Who Picks Up Moby Dick Won’t Actually Like It”:

[A] classic out of season is worthless to most anyone. You don’t learn to love reading because you were blown away by Moby-Dick; you learn to persevere through Moby-Dick because you learned to love reading from simpler, trendier, more instantly-gratifying stuff. Chase thrillers, Star Trek novelizations, Judy Blume, whatever–it’s the Pixie Stix of literary pleasure that get us hooked and in need of subtler, more thrilling highs.

To the extent that it’s doubtful a middle school ever assigned Moby-Dick anyhow, it’s a moot point. But what I wish the Times story were clearer about—and this is tough to quantify, I know—is whether the choose-your-own-adventure approach increased an overall interest in reading, or if being force-fed Huck Finn actually decreases it. (The story mentions one study that says choice improved performance on comprehension exams, but doesn’t say by how much, or if those cases involved a mix of choice and assignments.)

Like Yglesias and Dueholm, I’m a big fan of Moby-Dick; like Dueholm, I didn’t read it until I was out of college. Maybe it’s ambitious reading in high school that makes you a lifelong reader, though I sometimes wish I had a do-over for the classics I read then that I didn’t have an especially good grip on: Don Quixote, Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury. What I do know is that the comic books and Star Trek novelizations I also read back then didn’t adequately prepare me for those books; what I needed (and sometimes got) was a smart teacher who could speak about how thoughtful literature works. Which is why I’m a little skeptical of the idea of a curriculum designed to support pretty much whatever the student feels like. It smacks of everybody-gets-a-trophy-ism, and risks avoiding a cold fact of adult life that school ostensibly prepares you for: We’re often charged with reading things that are complicated but which we are obligated to understand anyway. Classics can be difficult, but isn’t that why we teach them?

Snark, the Early Days

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books features a piece (subscribers only) by Christopher Benfey on the work of Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller, who was among the first well-known and well-respected female literary critics in the country. Not respected enough, Benfey argues. He gets a few jabs in toward writers who tried to present Fuller as a weak flower suffering her father’s abuses because he made her read Virgil as a child (something a lot of smarty-pants boys were compelled to do); and he zings Susan Cheever‘s book on New England intellectuals, American Bloomsbury, for openly speculating about a romance between Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Cheever’s lively and well-written book, which fans fires where few have found smoke, is perhaps best treated as a historical novel,” he writes.

If that seems a little snarky, Benfey is just calling up some of the same spirit that Fuller brought to her book reviewing, particularly for Horace Greeley‘s New York Tribune. He writes:

Fuller’s book reviews have never received the attention they deserve. Amid the chaos and contention of American publishing . . . Fuller was able to identify the most vigorous and promising writers of her time: Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, Frederick Douglass, and Melville. . . . She was reading their books at an early stage in their careers, and did not live long enough to read Hawthorne’s novels or to find the promise of Typee—in which she relished the savage irony directed at missionaries in Hawaii and the South Seas—fulfilled in Moby-Dick and “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

About those missionaries—Fuller’s review of Typee for the Tribune in 1846 tries to rattle the high-minded women who sponsor missionary work in the hopes of taming the savages:

[I]t would be well if the sewing societies, now engaged in providing funds for such enterprises would read the particulars, they will find in this book…and make inquiries in consequence, before going on with their efforts. Generally, the sewing societies of the country villages will find this the very book they wish to have read while assembled at their work. Othello’s hairbreadth ‘scapes were nothing to those by this hero in the descent of the cataracts, and many a Desdemona might seriously incline her ear to the descriptions of the lovely Fay-a-way.

Not exactly Dorothy Parker, but as a skewering of old-fashioned sensibilities, I imagine it did the job.

Links: Clock’s Ticking

Edgar Allan Poe turns 200. Take the quiz, or buy the stamp.

Moby-Dick‘s influence on artist Frank Stella.

Gerald Early discusses his job as editor of the brand-new “Best African American Essays” and “Best African American Fiction” series. E. Lynn Harris guest-edited the first edition of the latter series; Nikki Giovanni is handling next year’s.

Richard Ford bids the Bush administration farewell in the Guardian.

And speaking of the Guardian: If you wanted to read Audrey Niffenegger‘s online graphic novel The Night Bookmobile but had a hard time navigating its clunky interface, John Dunlevy has assembled a helpful table of contents.

Thanks to Very Short List for pointing to Daily Routines, which gathers up anecdotes on the work lives of famous people. The section for writers, as you might imagine, draws heavily on Paris Review interviews—among those included are Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Ernest Hemingway. But let’s take a look at Pauline Kael, who offers a useful reminder of the first principles of good writing:

[S]taring at the piece in horror and exclaiming at her own ineptitude, she would immediately begin tearing it apart, scissoring and recombining the paragraphs, writing in new observations and jokes in the margins or above the lines, at which point the piece would be typed again. The process continued without interruption at the office where, like Proust after an injection of caffeine, she would assault the galleys, rearranging and rewriting, adding and subtracting still more jokes–on and on, until the pages were reluctantly yielded to the press.

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The D.C.-Area Readings page has been updated. Among the notable events coming up in a very notable week in Washington: Alice Walker Monday at Busboys & Poets 14th & V; Iraqi-born artist and writer Wafaa Bilal Thursday at Busboys & Poets 14th & V; and Jayne Anne Phillips, discussing her brilliant new novel, Lark & Termite, Friday at Politics & Prose. As always, your tips and recommendations for the readings page are welcome.

Links: Home and Abroad

A museum dedicated to the life and work of Pearl S. Buck is set to open in her hometown of Zhenjiang, China. Among the papers that will be presented there for an upcoming conference on Buck: One written by Black Eyed Peas’ Apl.de.ap (his Wikipedia page notes that the Pearl S. Buck Foundation found him a home after his father abandoned him).

Massachusetts now has an official state novel.

If you’re going to Don DeLillo‘s reading at Skidmore College on Tuesday, could you please ask him about his weird statement to the New Yorker‘s book blog about his blogging for the Onion?

Joseph O’Neill
on the cratering of the financial markets, one of the subjects he takes on in his novel Netherland:

“There’s no visible sign of national disaster here. But I think there is this state of complete disorientation about what the future holds among ordinary people, and that disorientation seems to penetrate the expert sectors too. The same happened after 9/11 – the Government didn’t know what it was doing, and again it seems to have no idea. It’s an alarming state of affairs. As for the bailout? I have a friend who is a day trader, fantastic with numbers, and he thinks the necessary figure is more like $4 trillion (£2.27 trillion).”

Roundup: The Chicago Way

Nancy Schnog, writing in the Washington Post, figures that books like Julia Alvarez‘s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents threaten to alienate teens from reading, and that high-school reading lists need a rethink. Commentaries on books have been done to death, she writes, and “Asking our students for yet another written commentary has a certain absurd ring to it, no?” Well, I didn’t think the goal of asking high-schoolers to write about a book was to extract shiny new insights about The Great Gatsby—just to test their comprehension and analytical skills. I also don’t see how it helps to further coddle an everybody-gets-a-trophy generation by wringing one’s hands over a 14-year-old boy who doesn’t like the book about Latinas because he himself isn’t Latina. But Schnog’s the teacher….

John McCain got through his ordeal in a POW camp by lecturing on the history of American literature. His cellmate Orson Swindle says McCain’s command of the facts wasn’t especially solid, though. “We only had the facts half right, but John said nobody knew the difference,” Swindle tells the Associated Press.

The Guardian‘s review of Philip Hoare‘s Leviathan makes the critical study of all things whale-related sound fantastic. (Naturally, there’s plenty of ruminating on Moby-Dick.) Alas, it’s not yet available in the United States.

The London Times interviews Paul Auster about Man in the Dark, a book I’m clanging on about more than usual because it’s one of my favorite novels of the year. Spoiler alert: the piece discloses a late-breaking plot point in the novel.

And again in the Post, crime novelist and blogger Sara Paretsky ponders the kind of bare-knuckle Chicago politics that she and Barack Obama grew to know:

[M]y real political baptism came in 1971, on a cold November election day. The city’s elections were notoriously corrupt, and I agreed to be a poll watcher in my South Side precinct. I watched the Democratic precinct captain repeatedly enter the booth with voters while the two election judges (one Republican, one Democrat) and a cop stood idly by. When I protested to the judges, the cop frog-marched me to the alley behind the polling place, slammed me against the wall and said, “Girlie, we’ve been running elections here since before you were born. You go home.”

Best Business Novels?

Last week New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera blogged about his efforts to find a great novel about business written in the past 25 years. That didn’t work out very well for him—hey, who’s the joker who recommended William GaddisJR?—but he did prompt a lively discussion about great nonfiction books about business.

On that front, I raised my hand to suggest Steven Bach‘s Final Cut, still the most fun I’ve had reading a book largely involving dollar signs. But I remain stuck on the fiction thing. About five years back I worked on project for Business 2.0 about the most important books about business; Biz 2 is dead now, and the full article is gone to wherever Time Inc. mothballs such things, but a list is here. Yeah, we were probably reaching by putting Moby-Dick in the “leadership” category, but there’s some good stuff in there: Gary Krist‘s Extravagance, Don DeLillo‘s Cosmopolis, Saul Bellow‘s Seize the Day. I’m not sure why Richard PowersGain didn’t make the cut, because I’m certain I suggested it—it’s one of my favorite novels of the past 25 years, period. (Granted, it’s about the rise of a pharmaceutical giant that’s responsible for the lead character’s cancer, which isn’t the sort of thing a national business mag would want to promote. My editors weren’t big on my suggestion of The Road to Wigan Pier.) Any others? I’m thinking of novels that explore the big churning wheels of American business; Mark Sarvas has already collected a nice list of novels that explore office life.

Roundup: Bait and Switch

(If you’re arriving here from the Readerville Journal, welcome. If you’re not arriving here from the Readerville Journal: The folks at that venerable site have been nice enough to dub this site its Blog of the Week.)

Frank Wilson‘s Books, Inq. points to a review of Lionel Shriver‘s The Post-Birthday World, an exemplar of very divisive novels. (Wilson’s taken this up before regarding Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road.) It was one of my favorite novels of last year; my review for Kirkus is floating somewhere on the Barnes & Noble review page.

Coudal Partners, a Chicago-based marketing firm, has put out its latest edition of Field-Tested Books, in which various writers contribute short essays about their experiences reading outside of the usual contexts of libraries, living rooms, and public transit. Bless Joe Meno‘s essay on Winesburg, Ohio, which I blogged about at Allvoices.

Mark Twain‘s home in Hartford, Conn., is in deep trouble; a visitors’ center wound up costing double what was anticipated and energy costs are way up. I’d suggest putting on a short play and charging customers a ton for it, but maybe that’s a little too glib. Seriously: Donate here.

Superman is 70.

Guy Sorman, writing in City Journal, enthuses about the Amazon Kindle. Walking in Central Park one day, he convinced his wife that she needed to read Herman Melville‘s Billy Budd, right now, and uploaded it to his Kindle: “I typed “Billy Budd” on the keyboard. It took five seconds to complete the wireless download and cost me approximately $6, debited from my Amazon account.” Had Sorman talked to me, I could’ve saved him six bucks, but I will concede that the Kindle is preferable if you’re insisting your spouse read something outside at that very moment.

I knew that Gore Vidal was bitter at how he’s been treated by the New York Times over the years, but yeesh:

What do you think is your own best novel? I don’t answer questions like that. Ever. And you ought not to ask them.

Well, it was a great pleasure talking to you. I doubt that.

More Opera

The Dallas Morning News reports that the Dallas Opera’s first season in its new facility in 2009-’10 will feature the world premiere of Moby-Dick, by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer:

“That book is so operatic in scale and in its emotions,” Mr. Heggie says of the Melville novel. “The emotional trajectory is so clear and so strong. And innately it has so much music in the sea, and so much rhythm in life on a ship.”

No whale will be depicted onstage, Mr. Scheer says. “But we’ll find a way of depicting the whale hunt. But the story is so much more about the personal misguided quest of Ahab, all that it means for him and those around him.”