Friday, December 2, 2011

Day 2: Moby Dick, or Why We Love Reading

Welcome to Day 2 of our 24 Days of Books. Today you get a bonus -- three terrific books instead of one, all sharing a Melville theme.

One of my favorite reading memories is the time I was assigned to read Moby Dick. We’re talking high school. I put it off and put it off, until at last I had two days to read this whale of a book and no choice but to barricade myself in my bedroom and ask Mom to slip food under the door.

Little did I know what a sea change awaited me.

I spent the next 48 hours on a ship looking for a great white whale and discovering a passion for reading. I was awash with adventure, drowning in metaphor, and totally carried away on a sea of language. All from the safety of my little bed.  

And here’s the thing: I have no memory of how I did in that English class, but thank you, Mrs. Hackett. You gave me the joy of reading, a gift which will last me to the end of my days. And Mom, thanks for the grilled cheese sandwiches.  

So here we are, 160 years after Moby Dick was first published, and it’s a banner year for lovers of Melville’s great American novel. Three new books for your consideration:

Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page by Matt Kish. This huge brick of a book is exactly what it says it is. Matt Kish, an Ohio artist, set out on an epic voyage of his own one day in August 2009.  He began illustrating Melville’s classic, creating an image a day over the next eighteen months based on text selected from every single page of the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition. Completely self-taught, Kish refused to set any boundaries for the artwork and employed a deliberately low-tech approach in response to the increasing popularity of digital art. Found pages torn from old books are combined with ballpoint pen, marker, paint, crayon, ink and watercolor in a variety of styles. This book is beautifully printed on luscious paper and published by Tin House Books of Portland. Many of Matt’s original illustrations for this book are available through his blog. The book is available in a paperbound version and a slipcased hardbound version -- both are gorgeous.

Ishmael and friends find their perfect contemporary champion in Nathan Philbrick, whose Why Read Moby-Dick? is an enlightening and entertaining tour through the world of Melville’s classic. In this slim volume, the author brings a sailor’s eye and an adventurer’s passion to unfolding the story behind an epic American journey. He skillfully navigates Melville’s world and illuminates the book’s humor and unforgettable characters, finding the thread that binds Ishmael and Ahab to our own time. This book is designed to start conversations, inspire arguments, and make a powerful case that a classic tale can be discovered anew.

Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding, published recently to much acclaim, is the story of the Harpooners,  a baseball team from Westish College, a small liberal arts school whose president, Guert Affenlight, is a Melville scholar. Team star Henry Skrimshander makes a disastrous error, and the fates of five people are upended.  Besides Henry and Guert, there is Owen Dunne, Henry’s roommate and teammate, Mike Schwartz, team captain and Henry’s best friend, and Pelle Affenlight, Guert’s daughter who returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage. It’s complicated. But throughout, there are references to  Melville. And, as the Paris Review says, Harbach’s novel is “…a book about baseball in the way that Moby Dick is a book about whaling – it is and it isn’t.” This is a big-hearted novel whose author loves his characters, in spite of and because of their flaws. I gobbled it up.

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