Sunday, January 3, 2016

What do whales have to do with writing?

You might think this a strange title for a blog post, or for any piece of writing.  Indeed, what do whales have to do with writing? According to Herman Melville, brilliant author of Moby Dick, quite a lot.  After reading the introduction to Moby Dick (a book I asked my youngest son to get me for Christmas - one of the classics I have never read) I almost felt I didn't need to read the book. The introduction, written by David Herd, Professor at the University of Kent at Canterbury, was so brilliant, so insightful, I had to think about it for awhile, to absorb it -- like a great sentence in a good book.

Melville was erudite, and he compared the act of writing to two things -- to reading, and to whales.  I'll start with his comparison to reading. Melville "reads to write" as Professor Herd states. I often tell my students "good readers make good writers." This is very true, but it seems to be more obvious in a book like Moby Dick, where Melville begins his book with "extracts," quotes about whales from many varied books: the bible, Shakespeare, Milton and whaling songs. He has read voraciously, and thus writes out of an abudance of material. The books he has read are fodder for his writing.

In an early scene in the book, Ishmael receives a gift of money from Queequeg, and he uses the money to pay for his own and Queequeg's room and board.  As Professor Herd describes it, this transaction is "a lovely sequence of events, Ishmael receiving a gift, passing it on, and in the process turning it into something else..." and this "hints at the way Melville circulates learning: receiving words from another writer and passing them on, although not before he has turned them into something else. Which makes the book a bit like a library."  Good books are like that. They do not stand alone, but stand on the backs of all the books the author has read.

The second allusion is more like a simile.  Writing is like a whale's spout.  How?  Whales dive into the deep and gather up sustenance, only to surface and spout out water, or vapor. What they produce is not what they took in, but something new.  Just as a writer absorbs all he or she has read, and spouts out someting new - a novel, a poem, a song. This wholly unique way of thinking about writing enthralls me. What do you think?

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