When I was in high school we read Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I think I was 15 years old, the tenth grade. It was a big, very thick book, and the print was small. Everyone had to read this book, and I expect this was true in hundreds if not thousands of high schools across the country. I remember even today the pain and suffering, searching for the MEANING, trying to understand the complex sentences, week after week as we all labored through it. This wasn’t the Gregory Peck and Hollywood version, which had recently come out. Fortunately (as I thought then) the teacher, who by the way had a wooden leg and when he became frustrated would jab his pencil into his wooden thigh through his pants until the tip snapped off, elected to skip all the sections in the book describing gear, technique, rigging. These seemed to be long sections and were to us fifteen year olds impenetrable. I hated reading Moby Dick. I hated it.
Now flash forward a few years and I am fishing, we’re out on the edge of the shelf tending our lobster gear, the weather’s bad, we cannot work, so we’re drifting, waiting. Probably like all fishing boats, the reading material aboard was limited to skin magazines, fishing trade journals, and a few scattered paperbacks. We had to drift a lot out there, it was late in the fall, the wind blew, and one day I found, under the mattress of a bunk, a dog eared copy of Moby Dick. Desperate for something different, yet recalling the nightmare of the tenth grade, I opened the book.
“Call me Ishmael,” and I began. When I next looked up we were going back to work and I had finished the book, all, what, six hundred pages of it, and it was as if an hour had passed. The technical sections our wooden-legged teacher had skipped had all the good stuff, the rigging, the ropes, the blocks, the try work operations, all the stuff about running a ship and working at sea that I now somewhat understood. Plus, I had run across a few Ahabs already even then in my young career at sea, not to mention a host of other Melville-like characters which were a major reason I enjoyed the industry anyway. And what had been to an inland land bound kid a drudgery and trial had become a revelation and delight to a wind-bound bored deckhand.
Moby Dick is a great book. Sadly, most people who read it probably had the experience I had, high school and having no clue about half the descriptions in the pages, and thus missing the very essence of what made it, for me at least, a wonderful tale and a rollicking good yarn. I was just lucky, to come upon it again in circumstances where I could at last understand what had previously been unclear. I’m not going to recommend that every tenth grader be assigned to drift for four days offshore with nothing else to do until they pick the book up, but maybe that’s what’s necessary to really enjoy it.