On readerly identity

by drpoppy

I’m in the middle of a book called Why Read Moby-Dick? Why I’m reading Why Read Moby-Dick? is more complicated than my usual decisions about reading. After all, Moby-Dick is at the heart of one of my favorite stories about myself as a reader.

On one level, I am simply reading Why Read Moby-Dick? as research; I was thinking about having this question (why read this book?) be at the heart of a book I’d like to write about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so I wanted to see how the author, Nathaniel Philbrick, went about structuring his book around this question. But if I’m being honest, what drew me to the book was the book that it’s about. I was curious about this book well before I even had an idea for my own. I semi-secretly want Philbrick to convince me to read Moby-Dick. You see, I’ve never read it. And I can’t decide whether I want to, since to read it would change my readerly identity.

If I read Moby-Dick, I could reward myself with this beautiful t-shirt.

To explain my ambivalence, we must travel way back to my high school years. Located in a small town in one of the consistently lowest-ranked states for education, my public high school was not the kind of place that provided a solid foundation for college, or lifelong reading habits, for that matter. My high school literary education was spotty and unusual and deeply formative.*

In eleventh grade, I was in an honors English class led by a lovable and eccentric teacher who, instead of  assigning a book for the whole class to read, would personally select books and assign them individually. For example, one week, I would be reading Jane Eyre while my classmate would be reading Of Mice And Men.** And yeah, there’s a major length discrepancy there that did not escape my notice, but I decided to feel honored that my teacher assigned me long, older, sometimes difficult novels. He knew I would read them. I was a very good girl who did what she was told, but it was not just that: I loved reading more than anything, and I loved getting an ambitious assignment, and I really did love the novels. I credit him for introducing me to Jane Eyre, my favorite novel ever and the book that I most strongly identify with. (The only book I ever asked my husband to read was Jane Eyre, because I finally came to the conclusion that you can’t fully understand me if you haven’t read that novel. For the record, he liked it***, which is good because I am Jane Eyre. I know every girl thinks she is Jane Eyre, but, like, except for the Christianity and the fact that I grew out of masochistic obsessions with bad boys, we are seriously  the same.) My high school teacher also assigned me The Sound and The Fury, and even though I didn’t understand half of it, I was in love. That book completely blew my mind, changed my understanding of what literature could be, possibly even set me on my very convoluted path toward graduate school (even though I didn’t study Faulkner in grad school). I still can’t believe he assigned The Sound and The Fury to an eleventh grader to read completely on her own, and I still thank him for doing it.

But then there was Moby-Dick.

Maybe after I read Jane Eyre he overestimated my love for lengthy nineteenth-century novels. Or maybe he just figured it was an important novel for me to read. But, dear reader, I could not get past the second chapter. I just hated it. I hated the writing style, I hated the fact that it was about whaling, I hated that there was not a female character in sight–I don’t even quite know what  I hated, but I was not going to read it. My simple sixteen year-old brain clamored for a solution. Then I did something I never did before and never have done since: I cheated on the assignment and copied a synopsis from Cliffnotes. (Should I be admitting this publicly? What is the statute of limitations on high school cheating? Does this ruin my cred as someone who tries to help students avoid plagiarism?)

My teacher had a funny habit of making us read him our book reports instead of handing them in. When I was finished reading him my Cliffnotes synopsis, he looked me right in the eyes and asked, “Kristina, did you read this book?”

And to my shame, I boldly met his gaze and replied, “yes, of course I read it.”

If I read Moby-Dick, I can watch this incredible-looking movie: “Since the beginning of time, man has pitted himself against the power of the sea!”

Ever since then, Moby-Dick has been as much a part of my identity as a reader as Jane Eyre is, but it is the anti-Jane Eyre. It is the book I never read, the book I knew my teacher knew I didn’t read, the impetus for lying to my favorite teacher; it represented the only time I cheated in all of my many years of schooling, from kindergarten through doctorate. I have felt shame. But I have also felt a strange pride, a sense of rebellion for not reading it. I even made a habit of telling people that, as a general rule, I do not read novels by men that take place on a ship. (Now I don’t even remember what prompted me to make this generalization–was it the horrible Heart of Darkness, which I *did* read but hated? In any case, ask any of my grad-school friends and they will tell you: yep, Kristina does not read novels by men that take place on a ship.)

Because of my sordid history with Moby-Dick, I’ve vacillated between considering it a badge of dishonor and wanting to redeem myself by reading it. But now, after living in New England for so long, and having read and loved “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and having read and loved so many 19th century novels, I am starting to think I might be ready to change my identity and read a book by a man that takes place on a ship. Because maybe I’m tired of holding onto that kind of rule about reading.

What do you say? Anyone want to talk me into or out of reading Moby-Dick? Is it too late to read it now, or would I enjoy it more as an adult? Unfortunately, Nathaniel Philbrick is not succeeding thus far, so at this point I only have my own convictions as motivation. And is there a book (or books) that you think of as forming your readerly identity?

*More about my high school literary education in my next post.

**I have also never read Of Mice and Men.

***My husband’s favorite part of Jane Eyre was the part with St. John. I love him for that. I have never, ever, ever met anyone who liked that part best! When I asked him about it, though, he said he liked that he was still being introduced to new characters that late in the story. How great is that?