I’ve been re-reading Moby-Dick again. In some ways, I like thinking about the writing of Moby-Dick as much as I like reading it.
Right now I’m most interested in Melville as a reader. Moby-Dick began its life as a more straightforward whaling adventure, but at some point, driven by his epic reading habit, Melville got really ambitious, and expanded it into the monster it is now. Although it would prove financially disastrous, Melville felt pulled beyond writing what he knew would be popular with his contemporaries. (“What I most feel moved to write, that is banned, —it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot.”) A lot of this feeling was exacerbated by the quality of the books he was reading. (Let that be a lesson to you: read the Big Dogs, and you might be doomed by your lit’ry ambitions!)
Here’s how David Herd puts it in his introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition:
Coming to literature relatively late in life, Melville did so not with the reluctance of an unwilling recipient of some institutionally imposed reading-list, but with the wide-eyed eagerness of the autodidact, hungry for the resources of the world’s great books… Melville never made any mystery of his sources, passing them on (not showing them off) in the ‘Extracts’ with which Moby-Dick begins: the Bible, Montaigne, Shakespeare…. [T]he more he read, the more Melville wanted to emulate what he read… he wanted to find a way of writing that would enable him to meld together all that he found valuable in other works. And this, more or less, as his diaries and letters describe it, was the state of mind, the state of readiness, in which he sat down to write Moby-Dick: full to the brim with the world’s literature, in a state of something like intellectual frenzy.
In Why Read Moby-Dick?, Nathaniel Philbrick narrows it down just a bit, and points to two giant reading events that changed the course of Melville’s writing. First, Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne and read his stories. Second, he read Shakespeare for the first time:
Hawthorne had a lot to do with the making of Moby-Dick, but the novel truly began in February 1849 when Melville purchased a large-type edition of Shakespeare’s plays. The eyes that would become so inflamed during the composition of Moby-Dick were already beginning to bother him. “[C]hancing to fall in with this glorious edition,” he wrote to a friend of the large-type volumes, “I now exult over it, page after page.”
Melville’s example demonstrates the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference. For Melville, the timing could not have been better, and in the flyleaf of the last volume of his seven-volume set of Shakespeare’s plays are notes written during the composition of Moby-Dick about Ahab, Pip, and other characters.
(You can see some of these notes on the wonderful website Melville’s Marginalia.)
William Giraldi sums it up in “The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia”:
Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.
While reading about Melville’s reading habits, I thought of Sam Anderson, author of Boom Town, and perhaps our greatest contemporary celebrator of marginalia. Just yesterday, Sam wrote a beautiful little tweet thread about coming across the right book at the right time:
I was at my favorite place (
@Powells) and found this beautifully tattered 1st edition of [Annie Dillard’s] *Teaching a Stone to Talk*. Realized I’ve read pieces of it but never the whole thing. So I spent $14.50, cracked it open on the plane home, & got IMMEDIATELY EXTREMELY ECSTATIC.
He goes on to sample some of his favorite excerpts, and then gets to the magic of books catalysts for writing:
maybe the best thing: reading this made me want to write. Some of my best writing—including the 1st stuff I ever published—started as marginalia in my favorite books: Didion, McPhee, Baldwin, Zora NH, DFW & on & on. Them doing their voice flows into you doing your voice.
In conclusion, books are the best technology. This cost less than $15, put me in a totally new & better headspace w/in 15 seconds, & I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. Also, it started me writing an essay of my own. And that was just the first 5 pages.
This, again, is the magic of reading with a pencil: it occupies a space somewhere between reading and writing, a crucial step towards turning reading into writing. And reading the right book at the right time with pencil in hand can lead to your best work.