Whale of a time

It was Herman Melville’s 200th birthday yesterday. It transported me back to my teen days, when my school hours would last from morning till about 2 pm. My mother taught in another school next to mine, and her session did not finish till 4 pm as she had to stay back to do some administration duties. While waiting for her, I would often spend my time in the library reading through all the books I could get my hands on, as someone who comes from a middle-class family whose parents were not able to afford luxuries such as books during that time. This is probably why I have so much affinity to the library and the whole concept of it, and highly against the idea of libraries growing obsolete in the time of “digital age”, or anything like that.

As much as I have read Moby Dick as a teenager, I admit that till now I had never looked much beyond the pages and examine the underlying themes — the idea of the whale itself to symbolise greatness, the gap between social classes, the sea as a place of transition, and the insight into the lifecycle of a whaling industry — and also one we had never discussed within our school’s education system. I might reread it and take notes of these tips.

I have also been thinking about books we have read during our younger days, of which we couldn’t fully resonate or understand, but we could then after picking them up again after so many years (I still could not understand the appeal of The Catcher in the Rye and On The Road after so many years still, sorry). But I guess the point I am trying to make is, for even an accomplished (?) writer such as Herman Melville, he still managed to find the right book at the right time when he read Shakespeare for the first time, as mentioned in Why Read Moby-Dick?:

… the novel truly began in February 1849 when Melville purchased a large-type edition of Shakespeare’s plays. The eyes that would become so inflamed during the composition of Moby-Dick were already beginning to bother him. “[C]hancing to fall in with this glorious edition,” he wrote to a friend of the large-type volumes, “I now exult over it, page after page.”

Melville’s example demonstrates the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference. For Melville, the timing could not have been better, and in the flyleaf of the last volume of his seven-volume set of Shakespeare’s plays are notes written during the composition of Moby-Dick about Ahab, Pip, and other characters.

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