I was on the train to Boston when I opened up an old friend, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Having moved from the West Coast to Chicago two months ago, and having therefore been out of the sight of salt water for one of the longest stretches of my adult life, I was looking forward excitedly to seeing the Atlantic. I had already planned a little trip to New Bedford, where I would visit the nation’s largest whaling museum and step into the chapel where, in Melville’s novel, Father Mapple preaches a soaring (and prophetic?) sermon on the topic of Jonah and the whale. In other words, I was in about as perfect a state of mind for reading Moby-Dick as a man can be, short of sharing a bed with a tattooed Maori harpooner or working for a one-legged man who nails gold doubloons to the water cooler and “baptizes” all his memos in pagan blood. And it was a pretty glorious reading experience, I have to admit.
This isn’t the post where I defend Melville’s novel as one of the greatest epics ever written by an American…I may be forced to do that, at some point, but it’s not what has me thinking tonight. Instead, what I realized as I read is that my experience with the book has been profoundly altered by the fact that, from 2005 to 2008, I taught the novel every school year to my honors-level American Literature class (given that it was paired with the Advanced Placement course in U.S. History, most of the students would have said they read it in “APUSH”). Or rather, most of my students would tell you they didn’t read it….well, they tried to, but it was hard for them, or they had a lot of other work, or this “Spark” guy seemed to have gotten the story down pretty well. This is also not the blog post where I call curses down from heaven on my lazy students for not reading the novel I assigned them. I did enough of that while grading the Moby-Dick essays, lo, those many years ago.
I hope I’m successfully conveying the mixed feelings I have about having taught a novel I loved and high schoolers are almost genetically predetermined to dislike (or at least find too daunting to really engage with). A little while after the last time I taught the novel, I read an interview with an American author (a good one, but one whose name escapes me) who says that everyone should read Moby-Dick, but no one should read it before the age of 50. There’s a side of me that agrees.
Back to me on the train. What really amazed me as I read was how vividly my reactions were dominated by my having taught the novel—so powerful were these feelings that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read the novel the way I once did. It’s making me wonder if it will be the same with all the books I loved and taught—The Iliad, or The Great Gatsby, or Macbeth, all of which I have on my shelf, and all of which I have been thinking of picking up for a good re-read. And I thought I should share some of my thoughts and experiences here in this very occasional “The Way I Read” series, since I’m curious how typical or atypical this is for teachers, and I wonder if students are affected the same way by having first read a book in the context of a class.
Reading Moby-Dick is affected first of all by the emotional highs and lows I went through teaching it. I hit the Quarter-Deck, Ahab’s first big show-stopper, where he stamps around the deck asking if everyone knows “what they’ve shipped for” and calling out phrases like “A dead whale or a stove boat!” It’s a hugely theatrical scene, and while reading it I couldn’t shake the memory of my first APUSH class, whose discussions of the novel had been so lifeless that I made them enact the chapter aloud as Reader’s Theatre to try and wake them up, shouting at the class to chime in on the chorus’s lines and pleading with the kids reading harpooners’ roles to make them sound more exotic and fierce. And then my eyes light on the stage directions that frame the chapter and those following (what a weird, bold, crazy man Melville was!), and I remember a student, Briana, who became fixated with “solving” Melville’s use of the stage directions (why do they appear, what do they signify, are they the key to unlocking the novel’s symbolic meaning), and how awesome it was to have a student that obsessed with a novel they were reading as an assignment. I remember the worst symbolic interpretations I read, and I find (to my great delight) that the best symbolic interpretive essays I read are actually now part of how I read the novel. I hit a passage and think how much more resonant an image is if I read the novel the way Tselil did, or John, or Alex. Those essays (written feverishly the night before, in many cases) are now superimposed on the novel for me, layers of text upon the text that make their own meanings Melville never intended.
This is wonderful. It also robs me of the ability to read the novel alone, which is very curious—I simply can’t boot all of those voices and faces out of my head, and so I’m reading along with them. And there are less clearly positive things that come with this too—is it good that, as I read, I keep mentally marking “oh, that would make a good quiz question” or “hmmm, how could I get them to talk about that?” It’s certainly distracting, but it’s also a pretty high level of engagement with the text. It means I skip over some things I probably shouldn’t, though. And some things, I’ll admit, are pretty clearly negative: some of the worst days I had in the classroom were the discussions of chapters (almost) no one had read, or worse, the days where it became obvious we were discussing how to interpret what SparkNotes was telling us, instead of what Melville was saying. And when I hit those stretches in the novel, it’s hard not to feel myself dragged down a bit, wondering if the book is really as good as I want it to be, remembering what a slog it was in November to be pushing through a novel that was increasingly being read only by me and about six other people.
I’m sharing all of this pretty openly, not to put any former students through a guilt trip (though some of you probably deserve it!), but rather because this is the funny, unexpected consequence of having taught something for that long. I can’t imagine how it is for some of my colleagues who have taught the same novel for 10 or 20 or 30 years. So, this is how I read (some things). I wonder if I’m affected by my having been a teacher in the new books I read (am I silently evaluating them for discussion questions? wondering how I might teach a given theme?). I wonder what it was really like for me to read Melville the first time—can I recapture those thoughts now, or are they gone forever? And I admit, I wonder how my former students will read Melville….well, I wonder how the very few of them who will ever pick him up again will read him. Will they remember what I did? What parts will be worse for them, or better? And, as the years go by and the memories fade for all of us, will works like this become less dominated by the classroom? When I am 60, or 70, or 80 (knock on wood) and reading Moby-Dick on the train to Boston, how many APUSH thoughts will crowd my brain? Is my shared group experience with this novel a permanent alteration to me as a reader, or just a passing moment in my life that will be gone before too long? I hope this sparks some thoughts for you, and that perhaps you’ll share your own experiences or ideas about this in the comments section below. Thanks!