Mar. 13th, 2011 10:00 pm
theholyinnocent: (Default)
[personal profile] theholyinnocent
Toward the end of my college days I did the communal living thing with a bunch of various gays, feminists, artists, and misfits. The house owner was a middle-aged English prof at a community college. He was a very intelligent, well-read guy and as I was an English major, our talks frequently turned to books and what I was reading/studying. How he laughed at me as I suffered through The Faerie Queen—good times! One semester I had an survey of American lit class and one of the short works we read was Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” I expressed admiration of the story. And he told me that as far as Melville was concerned that’s as far as I would go, because “women don’t read Moby-Dick.”

It took a while for me to really lost respect for him, but that was the first fissure in the foundation. Admittedly it took me a good long while to tackle the Great White Whale. Other big books kept getting in the way. Middlemarch. Don Quixote (which I never finished). The Recognitions (which I think is the longest book I’ve read, but aside from the bull sacrifice I don’t remember a damn thing about it…oh God, I hope there’s a bull sacrifice in it, otherwise that means I DON’T REMEMBER ANYTHING ABOUT IT). But a couple months ago I finally conquered the Great White Book (there’s a joke in there somewhere about the whiteness of the American literary canon). And finally I get what all the fuss is about.

But Lord, he do go on about that whale. Well, the whale in a general sense. But in such a pure marriage of poetry and prose that it carries you along, as the Pequod carried its crew to their destiny. It is a purely American book, with rough beauty and the theme of the individual—one man’s driven obsession that governs all, overriding common sense, compassion, property, prosperity, and other people’s lives. It’s the illogical, extreme outcome of the free will that our country so cherishes (and there’s a mini-essay about Charlie Sheen in there somewhere, but Little Lord Douchebag has gotten way too much attention lately, so fuck that). Who else but an American could have written it?

Have I mentioned that I’ve already broken my New Year’s Resolution of not using the word “douchebag” this year? And hundreds of times already? Like multiple times a day? Like even at meetings at work (mainly to annoy an aggravating, prudish coworker)?

Anyway, after I finished Moby-Dick, Mrs. THI congratulated me with a kiss and this: “Now you can go back to finishing Proust!” But I think I will save Proust for retirement.

I wanted to write more here, mainly about writing and The Kids Are All Right, but I think I’ll save that for another post. The Girl Scout cookies are calling.

Date: 2011-03-14 04:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
the Great White Book (there’s a joke in there somewhere about the whiteness of the American literary canon

Said joke might be why “women don’t read Moby-Dick.” Although I can't say I agree with him on the facts of the matter: it's more like nobody reads Moby-Dick.

Date: 2011-03-15 01:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
it's more like nobody reads Moby-Dick.

It's sad, really. I suppose it's still being taught in colleges...I hope!

Date: 2011-03-15 08:49 am (UTC)

Date: 2011-03-14 04:33 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
congratulations! wasn't it strangely glorious? glad you made it through. time to watch the movie and tv adaptions. ::evil grin::

Date: 2011-03-15 01:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"Strangely glorious" is a great way to describe it. The wonderful thing is that it didn't really feel like a long book. It flowed so smoothly I wasn't aware of how far I was getting. Once I hit the last 200 pages, though, I did knuckle down and made a push to finish.

time to watch the movie and tv adaptions. ::evil grin::

But nothing will ever top Moby Dick 2010! :)

Date: 2011-03-14 05:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Well, that was all very interesting. I'm glad you were able to keep going with it -- these days I find it hard to keep concentrating on books and that's a problem in my line of work. But it means I really admire long-book-reading people. I loved Moby-Dick when I read it and I think I'd like to read it again because I'd read it better now. Same with Proust, and like you they will both probably have to wait for retirement. Just thinking about this entry makes me crave a long book. Ann Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, Walter Scott all gave me long book joy back in the day. There are some good Aust. long books if you're ever interested in seeing how these are unlike American ones (and I agree, M-D is so wonderfully American) or British ones for that matter. I'd like to hear the rest of it when you have a chance. Meanwhile, I wish I had some reading to report myself but alas it's all dull work reading, mostly student thesis reading (which is fine in its own way, but not easy/worthwhile to share). BTW, and just between you and me, although I love Gaddis I remember absolutely nothing at all about The Recognitions. I teach Carpenter's Gothic so it's lodged in my head a bit.

As for your professor friend -- sigh. The problem with literature is not that women don't read "men's books," but vice versa, of course. It all feels a little frightening to me that these kinds of issues are still alive -- I mean I know this conversation was a while ago, but presumably some time after the advent of second-wave feminism! And this wretched reviewing culture where woman are lucky to be seen at all ... it's depressing.

"Little Lord Douchebag": I wish you could make some real money off this phrase -- it's worth it.

Date: 2011-03-14 09:14 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I second it... and, knowing that it might be a divisive recommendation, you could try reading Carpentaria.

Love this. Love it.

I read Moby Dick when I was 15. I learned how to read just at around that time (I was late to literacy), and it was about the fourth book I read. I don't remember a thing about it, except that it came hot on the heels of Steinbeck (probably Grapes of Wrath) and made me swear to myself not to read old white American blokes until I married one.

The free will stuff is interesting too. I used to use Birth of a Nation (in particular the scenes around in-town home ownership and the tousle) to demonstrate this in a class on culture and space, I wonder if I should have thought about MD?

Date: 2011-03-15 01:47 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Sandy, I find it pretty amazing that Moby-Dick was one of the first books you read! Holy shit. And Steinbeck would put anyone off of old white American blokes...never liked his novels very much. Probably because we were forced to read The Pearl in high school, and it was simply awful. In fact, I think the teacher even apologized at one point for making us read it (it was part of the curriculum).

To go to the heart of the whole American free will thing, I'd suggest Emerson & Thoreau.

Date: 2011-03-15 02:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Eesh. I'd totally blocked out The Pearl. Thanks a lot, THI!

I think I will save Proust for retirement

I don't know that I'd like to have that hanging over my head. You're a better woman than I am - I think I'm ok with not ever attempting to dive in again.

Date: 2011-03-15 11:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Sorry, Dath, I had to share the pain. That book alone made me hate Steinbeck. Yawnfest!

I think I'm ok with not ever attempting to dive in again.

Well, when we're at the lesbian retirement home you can drive the golf cart while I read Proust. How's that sound?

Date: 2011-03-16 02:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It's a plan. Just don't expect me to go screeching around corners because you like the wind in your hair - I'm a very safe driver.

Date: 2011-03-15 01:40 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think I mentioned once (or maybe not) that if you put a gun to my head and asked me to name an Australian writer I would say, "Janet Frame" and she's a Kiwi. Oh, and Colleen McCullough. So, yes, sorry...your country's literary history is lost to me! (Baz Luhrmann did not cover lit in his Australia movie, did he?) So what big Australian books are out there, aside from The Thorn Birds? (Which I did enjoy reading!)

I read a lot of big Brit books in college...early picaresque novels, like Tom Jones, Tristam Shandy, Humphrey Clinker. And we read Samuel Richardson's Clarissa--the abridged version, much to the horror of our purist prof, who urged us to read the whole thing: 1500 PAGES of boy meets girl, boy rapes girl, boy and girl die.

these days I find it hard to keep concentrating on books and that's a problem in my line of work.

You know, I just read an essay online by Geoff Dyer, where he discusses his problems with concentrating on reading. I wish I could track down the URL...there's a certain kind of midlife fatigue, burnout that hits serious readers and writers. I think in most cases it's temporary. Hard to break a lifetime habit of reading.

You mentioned before that you teach Gaddis! I wonder how your students would react to The Recognitions? Would they bitch about the size?

Date: 2011-03-15 08:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I hope I can get the long book thing back soon, because I miss it. I tried to reread Dangerous Liaisons a while ago and couldn't do it. I blame work.

As for long Aust. novels not written by Colleen. Well, there are lots, but For The Term of His Natural Life (Marcus Clarke) is probably the first one I'd recommend (chronologically), and the novel Snad mentioned, Carpentaria (Alexis Wright), the last (chronologically), and that would be a good way to start. In the middle, I suppose one must mention Patrick White (The Vivisector would be my rec., or else The Twyborn Affair, though I don't think it really qualifies as long) and The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (Henry Handel Richardson, a lady) in the middle somewhere. Lots more, but they would be the lynchpin Long Australian Novels. Okay, David Ireland's The Unknown Industrial Prisoner -- somewhat Gaddis-like.

I love Smollett, and actually all those novels you mention, especially Clarissa! So I'm a boring old stick at heart. But my love for Ann Radcliffe is stronger. I teach Gaddis at honours level so not too much bitching and moaning, though The Recognitions would elicit it in bulk.

Date: 2011-03-16 01:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for all the recs! I will investigate, and put the ones that pique my interest "on the list." I have heard of Patrick White (although sometimes I get him confused with Patrick O'Brien).

Date: 2011-03-15 09:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hunting for the Dyer found me this excellent quotation:
"I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me – but I went away – and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit ————————————————- and wanted to shoot myself."

Date: 2011-03-16 12:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Perfect! And wow, that is a really interesting blog too.

In case you haven't found the Dyer article yet, it's here. (

Date: 2011-03-15 01:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
p.s. "Little Lord Douchebag" might make a good t-shirt...hmmm....

Date: 2011-03-14 09:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That was a really nice, thoughtful literary post and I enjoyed it all, even the douchebaggy part.

I took AP Literature in High School and was really outside my element. I always preferred nonfiction and never got the subtle tones of fiction. We read Billy Bud and I honestly don't recall a word of it.

Date: 2011-03-15 01:50 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks, SG. I find it hard to believe you didn't "get" fiction, since you've written many stories and poems!

I read Billy Budd too...I think it sticks in my mind because I've seen the old movie version (with Peter Ustinov & Terence Stamp).

Date: 2011-03-14 11:50 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, Moby Dick... I think it's great you read it as an adult. I read it in AP English and aside from all the pedetrsian cultural references, I dont remember any of it. I laughed at Mrs THI's Proust joke. How about War and Peace? That's another one I should probably read again as an adult. Now I am thinking: what would Ulysses look like 20 years later?- would I feel the "ground breaking" that i did back then?

An example of this is Edward Albee's "At Home In the Zoo", which we saw Friday night: I remember being so shocked at "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe" 20 years ago, I remember thinking: "how shocking!" I thought I would experience the same effect during the second act (the "shocking" one). But, as I feared, I think I've become a bit cynical and maybe too "modern" to be unnerved by Albee anymore. When "Big Love" and "The Sopranos" have already come and gone, the spectrum of :shocking: has narrowed for me. Depressingly so.

I like your literary posts.

...cannibalism. that would probably still shock me.

Date: 2011-03-15 02:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm really glad I read Moby-Dick now, rather than 20 years ago. I think I have a better understanding and deeper appreciation of it. So maybe if you reread "Ulysses" & "War and Peace," etc., you'd catch allusions and subtexts your younger self may have missed? There might be a deeper resonance in what you encounter now.

Funny you mention Albee, because over the holidays my sister & I watched the film version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." You're right, it's not shocking anymore, but it is so visceral and emotionally devastating to watch two people destroy each still has a lot of power. (And afterwards we were like, "Why the hell did we watch that? It's Christmas!")

...cannibalism. that would probably still shock me.

Maybe you should read "Titus Andronicus" to test this? Or rent "Rocky Horror Picture Show"? :) Personally I get a little squicked/shocked by bestiality, which brings us around to Albee again!

Date: 2011-03-15 02:37 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"Why the hell did we watch that? It's Christmas!"

Not exactly on the same literary level, but my father and I did a similar thing with Midnight Cowboy a few Thanksgivings ago.

Date: 2011-03-15 09:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
An ex- of mine saw Midnight Cowboy at the drive-in with her parents, aged 6 or so. I think it affected her ...

Date: 2011-03-15 09:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"get the guests"


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