Sunday, March 11, 2012

Reading about Reading

Several books have been lurking in the background of my far-too-busy days lately, including Martyn Lyons's Books: A Living History and Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick. Lyons offers students of the history of the book a lavishly illustrated tour of the books and reading across cultures and history, from the differences between writing surfaces like papyrus, parchment, and bamboo, to book collecting and the birth of libraries, to the modern digitization of reading. While the book does not offer anything particularly new for students of book history, there are lots of great tidbits (I especially enjoyed his interpretations of the transition of scrolls to codexes and the evolution of copyright). And it is, overall, an engaging argument for the extraordinary and enduring influence of books as a technology of knowledge. While reading it, I kept remembering the times when, as a boy, visiting my grandparents, I would sit for hours while the adults talked, reading their 1970 set of the World Book Encyclopedia. Like the magazine-like glossy pages and color layout of the World Book (different than, say, the rather austere black and white text of Collier's Encyclopedia), Books: A Living History has an excitingly wide historical scope, invites you to linger over exquisite visual photography, and offers writing that is brief but fascinatingly suggestive in its potential linkages. You get the sense that Lyons could tell you much more, if he and you were to, say, meet over a pint. Most of all, it makes you yearn for an uninterrupted afternoon in the library.

Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick is a slim but delightful celebration of Melville's classic. Having read Moby-Dick too many times to count (it seemed to be on every American Studies syllabus when I was in college), I wasn't sure what Philbrick could possibly tell me, but I was pleasantly surprised. This is not so much a book about Philbrick's love for Moby-Dick, as for his love of reading the book, something he views not as a one-time affair but a regular ritual. Moby-Dick is not an easy book to move through, on the whole, something Philbrick himself admits, and educators have (much as they have done with Shakespeare) gone on a little too long about how Melville is good for you. Especially galling to Philbrick is the tendency to find symbolism in the book: "The White Whale is not a symbol. He is as real as you or I...He is a thing of blubber, blood, muscle, and bone--a creation of the natural world that transcends any fiction....So don't fall into the Ahab trap of seeing Moby Dick as a stand-in for some paltry human complaint. In the end he is just a huge, battle-scarred albino sperm whale, and that is more than enough." (This reminded me, in particular, of a professor I had at Cornell, Walter Slatoff, who, in the heyday of postmodernism, daringly argued that he would treat characters, in the novels we read, as people). At any rate, Philbrick argues that, if you spend time with the book, and you open yourself up to its meandering philosophizing, poetry, humor, and "genial stoicism in the fact of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life," it may just reach deeply into you and fundamentally change how you see the world: “Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference.” This is precisely what fans say in their becoming-a-fan stories: they don't understand or relate to an artist, and, at the behest of friends, half-heartedly try to engage but fail. Then, one day, they read or listen or look one more time, and what they encounter strikes them unexpectedly in a new and profound way. From then on, the artist and his/her work become not a piece of entertainment but a source of affirmation, meaning, and efficacy. Philbrick likewise urges us to visit Moby-Dick again and again, even when it seems daunting: "Moby-Dick is a long book, and time is short. Even a sentence, a mere phrase, will do. The important thing is to spend some time with the novel, to listen as you read, to feel the prose adapt to the various voices that flowed through Melville during the book's composition, like intermittent ghosts with something urgent and essential to say." Even if you aren't ready for such a relationship with Melville, you have to envy Philbrick's genuine and abiding enthusiasm.

Finally, as a quick and related addendum, I just want to mention Maria Popova's recent discussion, on Brainpickings, of a very cool 1933 Booklover's Map of Literary Geography. I don't have more to add, except that I want a map like this in my office.

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