Is this man insane?

Paul O’Connor is special.

All those who write for this book blog do so because they love books. They like to read them, and they also like to talk about what they have read. They enjoy the thoughtful conversation about books that’s increasingly moving to the Internet as more and more print publications give up on locally written book reviews.

All who write for this blog do so without pay, and I greatly appreciate their efforts and contributions.

Some of us venture beyond reviews of new books fresh from the publishing houses. Steve Wishnevsky of Winston-Salem enjoys reading books on his Kindle, especially older books that he can download free because they are in the public domain.

I enjoy listening to books on CD when I’m driving alone.

But back to Paul, who is truly special. Paul, who lives in Raleigh and is the best journalist I was ever forced to fire, just completed a near superhuman feat, and nobody forced him to undertake this torturous endeavor.

Read his review to see what I mean.

By Paul T. O’Connor

MOBY-DICK; OR, THE WHALE. By Herman Melville. iBooks. 3010 iPhone screens. Free.

While youth is wasted on the young, so is a good liberal arts education. Put The Great Gatsby before a 19-year-old, and he’s likely to say it’s about a rich guy who is hot for a blonde but gets shot in his pool. And, oh, the guy throws big parties.

Ever since I kind of grew up, I’ve fretted over what I missed while daydreaming – mostly about some Mary, Mary Beth or Elizabeth – as an American Studies major. What hadn’t I understood when I raced through the works that were difficult to read: The Sound and The Fury, everything by the Puritans, Walden and, mostly, Moby-Dick.

So, in October I started re-reading Moby-Dick, a book I first read in less than a week during my junior year in college, 1971-72, and one that I hated. This time, I promised myself I would take the time needed, that I would look up the words I didn’t know, go back over the pages I’d read when I found myself daydreaming and think about what Ishmael was saying.

And I did it, finishing four months later.

Nonetheless, I think I liked it as little this time as I did back then.

That I re-read it on my Apple iPhone may have had something to do with my appraisal. Reading Moby-Dick on a 2-inch by 3-inch, backlit screen is akin to taking 7 inches of snow off the driveway with a tablespoon. But that inconvenience wasn’t the main reason.

The story of Ishmael, Queequeg and Capt. Ahab is fabulous. It’s a great adventure, very exciting. And there are great themes of obsession and religious fervor, too. Queequeg is as cool a supporting character as you’re going to meet in American fiction, a good runner-up to Huck Finn’s Jim. Ahab is the characterization of a few editors for whom I worked.

Nonetheless, the book has issues for the modern reader. The first is the antiquated language. Many of the words I didn’t understand 38 years ago, but just read over at the time, aren’t in a contemporary dictionary, if they ever were in any dictionary. And many of Melville’s references to characters of classical literature or medieval times are totally obscure today, if they weren’t even in 1851, when the book was published.

Then there’s Melville’s sentence construction. If I could get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’d conduct a study of Moby-Dick to try to diagram these sentences. It would be a lifetime’s work. I swear that there are no verbs in some, that others are complete nonsense, while others employ dangling participles, noun-verb and noun-adjective disagreements and complete non-sequiturs. But, how could I prove it? At these points, I couldn’t figure out what the hell the guy was writing about.

Then there are the digressions. Melville reminds me of the Danish pianist Victor Borge whose shtick was to introduce a piece, sit at the piano, play a few notes and interrupt himself, repeatedly. Melville sets us out on a grand journey across the seven seas, seeking the great leviathan, only to constantly veer off. His chapter detailing various artistic renderings of whales prompted me to scream, “Get on with it, Herman. I want to know what happens to the whale.”

That’s when I put the phone/reader down for three days.

So, what of the iPhone experience? In some ways, it was good for such a book. The small screen made me focus; it kept my mind from wandering. Every 10 or 15 seconds, it seemed, I had to flip the screen to a new “page.” The touch dictionary was great, even if a lot of the unknown words weren’t included. And the book was always with me, convenient for the reading of a few chapters if my drinking buddies, for example, were late to the brewpub.

Overall, I’d say, however, the iPhone is not the device for reading Moby-Dick. You can’t cuddle with it or even get comfortable. Unlike when reading from Amazon’s Kindle, you never get lost in the book, not realizing that you’re reading from a phone. And the backlit screen might bother your eyes.

So, will I do this again?

Yes, I will tackle another of the books I read, but “missed,” in college, probably Heart of Darkness. But I won’t do it on my iPhone.

No, I won’t try to read another whole book on the iPhone, but I will download short stories, and I use it to read the Raleigh newspaper every morning.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor,  is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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2 Responses to Is this man insane?

  1. wishnevsky says:

    I have Moby Dick on my Kindle, i’ll let you know. I have read The Gilded Age there, and it was great, easier to read than in a book. I have downloaded Frankenstein, Tristam Shandy, Groucho and Me, Jack London’s The Road, and have finished a few of them. Reading on a iPhone seems hard, not that i have actually held one.

    We were actually talking about this very thing and Moby Dick, at CAC Writers Group tonight, so i guess i better dig in, as soon as i finish Mark Twain’s Autobiography.

  2. Hal Tarleton says:

    Paul, I can’t remember when I read “Moby Dick,” only that I read it, maybe in high school or not long thereafter, and my reaction was much like yours. The book’s gravitas seemed greatly overstated; or maybe I just didn’t have enough gravitas of my own to delve into its depths. Actually, I found your review of “Moby Dick” much more interesting and readable than the classic novel itself!

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