Call Me the Classics Slacker

I’m a Classics Slacker. Maybe you’re one, too. A Classics Slacker is someone who always wanted to read the classics but never quite got around to it. A Classics Slacker comes across those Greatest Books of All Time lists and feels unworthy, uneasy, and a little bit nauseous. Sure, a Classics Slacker says, “I’ll read Ulysses someday.” You won’t. I know. I know because I’ve been saying someday, too—for, like, 30 years.

No more. This Classics Slacker is reading the “great books” so you don’t have to. And I’m going to summarize them right here, on this site. This is my service to Classics Slackers everywhere, my way of giving back.

I’m starting with Moby-Dick. Why? Because it’s the classic classic. However, I’ve just read the chapter titles (all 135 of them) and frankly, I’m concerned. Among them: “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales”; “Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes”; “Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars.” I may have bitten off more whale blubber than I can chew.

But I’m going for it anyway. And you can, too. Start here and keep scrolling down. New posts will appear at the bottom. But don’t expect them to fall as fast as raindrops. I am, after all, a Classics Slacker.

Stuck in the Harbor

There's already so much great stuff in Moby-Dick. Why the front matter alone provides such interesting flotsam and jetsam! You could get anchored there and never go on to read the rest of the book. There's Melville’s author bio, for example. Did you know that he self-published? “Melville had The Whale printed at his own expense in May-July 1851.” Couldn’t get a publisher to bite, eh? Sadly, I know how that feels.

And there are fun translations of the word “whale” into several languages. You can use them to impress your friends! French: baleine. Spanish: ballena. Fijian: Pekee-nuee-nuee. That's a mighty long one. By the time you warn your Fiji friend that a whale’s a-coming, the two of you would end up peeking from atop the whale's nuee-nuee.

The Introduction, written by English professor Tony Tanner (a Fellow of King’s College in Cambridge, no less), also promises a boatload of good reading. “It is an informed and informative effort,” Tanner writes. “There really is a lot of information about whales in the book.”

Better still, with a bunch of guys stuck in a boat for weeks on end, there’s bound to be some salacious stuff. And there is. Tanner writes, “The Crew are sitting around a bath squeezing whale sperm.” That scene will occur in a chapter titled, “A Squeeze of the Hand.” And just to make sure we've covered all the important parts, there will be a chapter called “The Cassock”—about the whale’s penis.

A quick scan the table of contents, promises yet more enjoyable chapters such as: “Chowder” (yum!); “The Whiteness of the Whale” (probably whiter than Barely Beige but not as white as Tickle Me Ivory); and “The Whale as a Dish” (delicious!).

But the Classics Slacker is really looking forward to “Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale, and Then Have a Talk over Him.” Their talk will probably go something like this: 
          Stubb: “Well, this right whale appears to be dead.”
          Flask: “Do you really think so, Stubby?”
          Stubb: “I do. I really do.”
          Flask: “I sure hope you’re right. I mean, about the whale. The right whale.”
          Stubb: “I know what you mean. Do you want to squeeze his penis?”
          Flask: “Nah, let’s have some chowder.”

So enough with the front matter. Let's push off into the main book. Anchors aweigh!     

Go Fish

The first sentence of Moby-Dick goes down real easy, like swallowing a goldfish. After all, it’s only three words: “Call me Ishmael.”

The second sentence isn't too bad, either, although considerably longer (40 words). Basically Ishmael says he’s decided to go out to sea. He says when he feels depressed—or as Ishmael puts it “a damp, drizzly November in my soul”—he figures it’s time to head for the water.

Who can’t relate to this? Beyond lifting moods, the sights and sounds of the ocean can silence mindless brain chatterNotes Ishmael: "Meditation and water are wedded forever.” Or, as the Classics Slacker's mom used to say, “I do my best thinking in the bathtub.” Which works pretty well, too, if you can't get to the ocean.

Poor Ishmael can’t afford a bathtub or a boat ride. But that's okay with him. He prefers to get a job on a ship. “Passengers get sea-sick—grow quarrelsome—don’t sleep of nights—do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;—no I never go as a passenger.”

Smart guy. Having once endured the horrors of a Carnival cruise ship, the Classics Slacker couldn’t agree more.  

But before Ishmael can find a ship he can work for, he has to fish around for a place to stay for a couple nights in New Bedford, Massachusetts, because he missed the boat (ha!) out of Nantucket: “For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.”

Ishmael would love to check into one of New Bedford's top-rated hotels on Trip Advisor, but he lacks the cash: “With anxious grapnels I had sounded my pocket and only brought up a few pieces of silver.” Before he books a room, he advises himself to “be sure to inquire the price, and don’t be too particular.”

If his finances were a bit healthier, he might have stayed at The Crossed Harpoons. But from the street it looked “too expensive and jolly.” Same problem with The Sword-Fish Inn, also “too expensive and jolly.” Ishmael needs someplace cheap and depressing. At last he happens upon The Spouter-Inn. “As the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it, I thought that here was the very spot for cheap lodgings.”

In other words, perfect!     

Sleeping with the Cannibal

Our guy Ishmael has a problem of biblical proportions. There are no rooms left at the Inn. But the innkeeper—Peter Coffin—has a ready solution: Ishmael can bunk down with one of his regular boarders, a harpooneer named Queequeg. Except that the room has only one bed.

Ishmael has some misgivings about this proposition: “No man prefers to sleep two in a bed...And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply.”

Ishmael would rather sleep alone on a bench. The gracious innkeeper hauls out his woodworking tools to try to make the bench as comfortable as, well, a coffin. Soon wood shavings are flying all over the place. “The landlord was near spraining his wrist, and I told him for heaven’s sake to quit—the bed was soft enough to suit me, and I did not know how all the planing in the world could make eider down of a pine plank.”

Ishmael tries the bench, but it’s hopeless. He decides to take his chance with the harpooneer after all, who has yet to appear. Peter Coffin reassures him all will be well. “He pays reg’lar,” says the innkeeper, admitting that Queequeg supplements his harpooneer’s income by selling shrunken heads on the side.

Ishmael, pooped, gets into the bed, shrinks himself into the fetal position, and nearly reaches “the land of Nod.”

Then Queequeg enters the room. He does not slip in unnoticed. First off, he’s huge, bald, and covered in tats. Ishmael silently tries to rationalize this part away: “It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin.”

True. But the shrunken heads salesman is also smoking “great clouds of tobacco,” toting his inventory, and waving a tomahawk. For some reason Ishmael hadn’t put it together that selling heads and cannibalism go hand in hand (the best parts). He is stunned speechless, overcome with fear. Queequeg finally discovers the mute Ishmael when he climbs into bed.

Screaming ensues until Peter Coffin rushes in to save the day (night). He clears up the confusion between the two men, and Ishmael sees that Queequeg means no harm. “For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.” And he had seen earlier in the evening how destructive arrantest topers (drunk sailors) can be. He decides, rather philosophically, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Cannibals, sure. But smokers, no. That’s where Ishmael draws the line, and Queequeg kindly agrees to extinguish his smoking materials. “I don’t fancy having a man smoking in bed with me,” Ishmael says. “It’s dangerous. Besides, I ain’t insured.”

If only Ishmael had been born in Canada instead of the United States. He would’ve been covered by universal health care.

Calm before the Storm?

Melville knows a thing or two about pacing. First he riles up his reader with the exciting tale of Ishmael and his new cannibalistic bedfellow, Queequeg. Once his reader realizes that Ishmael indeed survives the night without getting eaten (which would make for a much shorter book), the author slows things down a bit and gives his reader a chance to catch her breath. But perhaps Melville slows things down a bit too much. The Classics Slacker was in danger of dozing.

Because, over the next 10 pages or so, our narrator, Ishmael, details a series of his doings where he’s doing nothing. Ishmael wakes up next to Queequeg. Ishmael watches Queequeg get dressed. Ishmael eats breakfast. Ishmael walks around New Bedford. Yawn.

Wasn’t Ishmael supposed to go on some sort of voyage? Yes indeed. Back on page 1, there it is: “I thought I would sail about a little bit and see the watery part of the world.” Then why the dressing, the eating, the walking?

Who knows? Apparently, Ishmael thinks this is interesting stuff. Regarding QQ’s morning routine: “At that time in the morning any Christian would have washed his face; but Queequeg, to my amazement contented himself with restricting his ablutions to his chest, arms, and hands.”

If anything is amazing it’s that Ishmael is captivated by all this. At least he knows he’s being a bit of a weirdo and not as cultured as the cannibal. “He treated me with so much consideration, while I was guilty of a great rudeness; staring at him from the bed, and watching all his toilette motions; for the time my curiosity getting the better of my breeding.”

Breakfast is another borefest, as the rowdy sailors of the previous evening sit mute before their coffee and hot rolls. Ishmael had thought breakfast would be an entertaining affair, that he would “hear some good stories about whaling.” But none are forthcoming. “To my no small surprise nearly every man maintained a profound silence.” He never explains why the boarders are boring. Just that they are.

So Ishmael leaves the table to stroll around New Bedford and nothing really happens there either until Ishmael goes to Whaleman’s Chapel.

And then, finally...something of interest. Within the walls of the chapel Ishmael reads marble memorials of dead men “lost overboard,” “towed out of sight by a whale,” “killed by a Sperm Whale” etc, etc. “It needs scarcely to be told [which of course means he’s going to tell us anyway], with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage [yippee, there is a voyage coming at some point, maybe even tomorrow] I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me.”

In sum, the memorials cause Ishmael to think “hmmm.” But not to worry. Although he knows he may die at sea, he calls it “a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of man into Eternity.” Which has got to be better than a slow orderly dying of reader by boredom.