November 3rd, 2006
Page reached: 47 of 522 (9%)
Status report: A friend of mine once announced that he had deduced the secret to Stephen King’s success.
“Short chapters, man,” he told me. “Those things are like potato chips. You read one, and then you flip ahead and see how long the next one is, and you’re, like, ‘shoot, I can read three more pages.’ And then suddenly you’ve finished a 900 page book.”
Of course, King usually just enumerates his titles rather than give them titles; when he does employ titles, they are typically cryptic. You’re willing to invest in three more pages because a chapter with a title like “34” or “Home Base” might involve a cat coming back to life or someone getting run down by a ’58 Plymouth Fury.
Not so with Melville. When you see a chapter entitled “Breakfast,” you know full well which meal is going to be described in detail.
Each chapter in Moby-Dick is like a door reading “Broom Closet,” behind which you find a closet containing brooms. Outlandishly overwrought brooms, admittedly — with handles carved from cherrywood and quetzal feathers as bristles — but, still, pretty much exactly as advertised. And when you see a series of titles like “Breakfast * The Street * The Chapel * The Pulpit * The Sermon,” you know the exact sequence of events that will unfold over the next five chapters, like a route plotted on a Google map. It’s like Melville first outlined his book using one and two-word phrases, turned those into chapter titles, and then built upward, adding a few thousand words here and there to flesh things out.
If I were to do this all over again, I might have chosen to simply read through the Table of Contents over the course of the month.
Favorite passage: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.”
Words looked up:
- Goodwin Sands (“[dead men] tell no tales, though containing more secrets than the Goodwin Sands.”): “The Goodwin Sands are a 10-mile long sand bank in the English Channel … More than 2,000 ships are believed to have been wrecked upon them.”
- Cenotaph: A monument erected in honor of a dead person whose remains lie elsewhere.
- Canticle: A song or chant, especially a nonmetrical hymn with words taken from a biblical text other than from the Book of Psalms. Somehow I read A Canticle for Leibowitz in its entirety without knowing this.
- Spile: A post used as a foundation; a pile.
- Parricide: The murdering of one’s father, mother, or other near relative.
New Crewmates: albiewise.