Of all the human shortcomings I can think of, the one that irks me most is complacency. Of course, a healthy sense of self is a positive thing, but being entirely satisfied with every aspect of your being: that’s repugnant.
I participated in the Moby-Dick Marathon at the Provincetown Public Library a couple of weeks ago. More than a hundred readers gathered over three days to read the novel out loud in its entirety. It is a special experience.
There were no more than a half-dozen people gathered by the Rose Dorothea to hear me read, but it did not matter. In my old religion, as in so many others, the occasion of a young person coming of age is celebrated with ceremony, and one aspect of this is the ritualized reading of the portion of the holy book that coincides with your day. This act symbolizes your entry into a community of believers.
I felt just this way in the library, reading my portion of Moby-Dick. Melville enthusiasts, and especially devotees of this, his most famous novel, are a special breed, a cult that keeps on reading. In Provincetown in particular, with our history of killing whales, there is a piquancy to bearing witness to what was done by our forebears.
I finished my section and stayed to hear a few more readers but finally had to get on with my day. Outside, as I was unlocking my bike, I noticed two guys sitting on a bench in front of the library and pleasantly interacting with passersby. Someone they obviously knew asked them, somewhat facetiously, whether they were going to attend the Moby-Dick Marathon. (They were sitting right by a large sign advertising the event.) In response, one of them made a noise somewhere between a hoot and a snort; his companion shouted, “This is as close as we’ll ever get!”
I am not an elitist. It is OK not to have read Moby-Dick: most people haven’t. What is not OK, in my opinion, is to feel so damn comfortable in not having done so. Many upstanding people, people who consider themselves readers, have not read Moby-Dick. But I do not hear them bragging about it, and in fact they would probably say that they intend to try one more time to get to it or through it.
And me? I have read the book a few times. But I have only a child’s understanding of nuclear physics, although I hope to someday rectify that. I am “bad at math” but wish it were not so. The digital revolution has left me in the dust, but I cannot turn my back on it. The constellations overhead have eluded my grasp — their names, I mean — but I hope that some starry night a patient somebody will help me learn them. I don’t have a full grasp of the causes of World War II, but I want to. I have never read War and Peace, but I mean to — someday.
At my stage of life I have to face the inevitable: I will never get the hang of snowboarding or skydiving, will never run a marathon or learn to tango. My ambitions are more cerebral than physical. But as Ishmael says in Moby-Dick: “I try everything; I achieve what I can.”
Each of us is given this one life, and our time on earth is limited. We are each bestowed with a brain that is vastly underutilized; there is so much out there to see, to learn, and to know. There has to be a certain level of challenge in our lives to make them meaningful. Comfort is a good thing, but simply being comfortable and staying comfortable is a lamentable goal. Adventures of the mind can keep a person vital and connected to this world.
Back to those classics like Moby-Dick: leaving them behind is like forgetting your grandparents’ names — and their very lives. Where would we be without them?