I moved from New York City to the hamlet of Phoenicia, in the Catskill Mountains, in 1998. Immediately, I became frustrated with the local "culture." I grew up in Manhattan; I was like a bee in the hive of that island. The humming of the other inhabitants informed me, reassured me. Now I walked alone, among mist-draped mountains, with no one nearby speaking Polish, Italian, Puerto Rican, German, French, Chinese. I felt stupid.
Luckily, Phoenicia has a first-rate thrift shop with a witty name: Formerly Yours. The prices are extremely low — some pants are 25 cents — but there's also a Free Table, and among its items are books. Formerly Yours is the opposite of a New York City bookstore: you must pay for romance novels, but Freudian Marxist studies are free. One day on the giveaway table, I found "Moby-Dick" (the Signet paperback, from 1978). I snapped it up immediately. That night I lay in bed and opened my new acquisition:
"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me onshore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation."
It was elegant, stately, poetic — but who could read it? This book demanded the intelligence of a Princeton professor, the patience of St. Jerome. It's the goddamn Great American Novel! "Moby-Dick" is as intimidating as ... a massive white whale! Sadly, I cast the classic aside.
Three days later, however, I hit on a plan. In Phoenicia, there is infinite time. If I read say, one page a day, I'd eventually finish this gargantuan novel. And so I began. Call me Sparrow. Each day I read a section of the text, marking my progress with a pencil. Melville became my spectral companion, speaking to me daily:
"Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I did not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger."
"Moby-Dick" is almost too great a book. Reading it burns your eyes. When you're in the middle of an Agatha Christie novel, you won't stop even to eat. Reading Melville is the opposite. Every three sentences, you must stare at the ceiling and wonder where your life went wrong. It's the perfect book to read with tragic slowness.
One virtue of "Moby-Dick" — you're not going to forget the plot. (Spoiler alert: It's about a bunch of guys on a whaling ship, searching for a particular whale.) A startling discovery: The Great American Novel is not set in America (except for a brief introduction). It follows a route through the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, into the Indian Ocean and on to the Pacific. Another discovery: Melville was such a visionary that he wanted to Save the Whales, 120 years before that bumper sticker was written.
For six years, I sailed on the Pequod, checking on the progress of my ship every night between 8 and 8:30 p.m. As a whaler slowly crosses the ocean, I reached page 150, then page 200, then page 250 ... As Captain Ahab grew more obsessed with the great white whale, I grew more obsessed with "Moby-Dick."
A lot of people skip the informational chapters on whaling, but not me. That would be like taking a shortcut in the Boston Marathon. Here's a sample:
"Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, in New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies' busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like scrimshander articles, as the wheelman call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hours of ocean leisure."
In Chapter 95, Melville describes the penis of a whale the boat has slaughtered:
"Had you stepped on board the Pequod at a certain juncture of this post-mortemizing of the whale; and had you strolled forward nigh the windlass, pretty sure am I that you would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers. Not the wondrous cistern in the whale's huge head; not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you, as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone — longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg."
Just as the Slow Food movement reverses the momentum of modern life, emphasizing local ingredients and long meal preparation, my "Slow Read" movement pulled me back into the thoughtfulness of a world of lamps filled with ... whale oil!
I didn't know how the book would end. I never saw the 1956 film with Gregory Peck, and no one at a party ever said, "Hey, weren't you surprised at the ending of 'Moby-Dick'? I couldn't believe Ishmael went off with that mermaid!"
After six years of reading, I finally reached the conclusion:
"... and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."
With vigorous, sustained mental effort, I'd conquered Melville! And if I can do it, so can you.