A Whale of a Fresh Start: The Quest to Read a Great American Novel
How my perennial New Year's Resolution to read Moby-Dick finally fulfilled a long-ago promise.
Call me Ishmael.
For more than 30 years, I'd crack the cover of Moby-Dick on New Year's Day and embark on what was destined to be a failed resolution: To read Herman Melville's classic novel sometime during the ensuing 365 days.
Some years, I barely made it past the first sentence. One year, I sloughed through to Chapter 32, then burned out on Melville's discourse on the "Cetology" of whales.
My perennial New Year's resolution became something of a joke among my friends. While they promised to exercise more, eat less, or perfect the one-armed push up (truly), I would offer the same resolve and they would give me that "heard it before" look in return.
To be clear, I wasn't trying to get from "Call me Ishmael" to "the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago" 1 simply because it was an arduous piece of American literature, made to be conquered. I made the attempt each year because of an implicit promise.
In the Winter of my senior year at college, one class - an American Lit survey that I'd somehow overlooked in my freshman year - stood between me and an expedited path to graduation. I was out of money and eager to start a new life, and if I could manage to pull off a passing grade in this course, I would be on my way. Dr. Braham had become as much a friend and mentor as a professor, and somehow that made it even more important that I did not disappoint. Unfortunately, my mild dyslexia couldn't stick the pace of the reading list and, worse (or maybe better?), I got hung up on the Transcendentalists. Lost in Thoreau and Emerson, I could only think that Melville needed a good editor to tighten up that 624-page beast.
The day before the final exam, a brave classmate asked Dr. Braham what we'd be tested on. 'Moby-Dick' was her hyphenated one-word answer. 'Mostly," she added. I was sunk faster than the Pequod.
I was sunk faster than the Pequod.
The next afternoon, dressed in a fisherman's knit sweater for whatever luck it might bring, I opened the exam, dispensed with the multiple-choice questions readily enough, took a deep breath, and read the essay question. I cannot tell you now what she asked, but I remember as if it were yesterday what I wrote in response. "Dr. Braham, you have asked the wrong question." I went on to fill two blue books with my impertinent opinion, turned in the exam, and figured there was a very good chance I'd be back for one more term.
Later that day, I crossed paths with my professor at the campus post office. She approached me with open arms and a shaking head. "You just couldn't jump one more hoop," she said, then walked on.
A few days later, I got my grades. I'd passed the survey course with a better-than-deserved grade. In that moment, I decided I would read Moby-Dick to honor the good will Dr. Braham had given me.
Fast forward some 30 years, and I'm waiting to board a flight at San Francisco International Airport. Browsing through the bookstore, I spotted a copy Moby-Dick . With a long flight to Sydney ahead of me, the odds seemed good that I could get well past the opening lines. That was in February. I carried the book in my briefcase for the better part of year, reading on long plane flights and quiet hotel rooms as I traveled the globe on business, my pursuit of completion not that unlike Ahab's pursuit of the Great White Whale. As I read, I marked the pages to note where and when I was in the world.
By November, I reached the final sentence:
"Now, small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its deep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."
Finished, I wrapped the book in holiday paper and mailed it to Dr. Braham. "Finally," my note said.
1 This is the final sentence of the novel. It is not nearly as notable as the first, no doubt because exponentially fewer people ever get to the end of Moby-Dick.
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