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The Last Time I'll Read Moby Dick

I've always been fond of uncles. They're big and happy and sly. They sing Bob Dylan songs off key and make up funny nicknames for you. They pull your braids and tease you in a way Dad can't quite get away with. And one of the unexpected delights of getting married was inheriting a host of new uncles. DH's family is close and I've loved spending time with his uncles and watching them interact with him and with his parents and now with our children. I'll never forget Aaron's Uncle Larry's first words to me on the day we were married. It was freezing cold and everyone was gathering around for the pictures and he came up to me, rubbing his hands together to keep them warm, saying, "You look beautiful, dear, but tell me--what are you reading?" Priorities are priorities, even on wedding days. Pleasantries aside, let's cut straight to the heart of the matter! Come to think of it, it's the only question he ever asks me. But it's the question I love best.

Uncle Larry is a retired professor of English and a  real scholar if ever there was one. On my first trip to his house, I walked slowly and quietly, perusing the books in this room and that, admiring the accumulated love for literature and thought that lined the shelves and hallways of his home. We haven't been able to spend as much time with him in the last few years, but last summer we were up his way for another wedding and managed to drop in and talk with Larry for a little while. He was out in his driveway when we pulled up, sitting in a lawn chair, reading a battered old copy of Moby Dick. When I commented on the book, he said he was reading it for his book group--a group composed of retired professors who meet every month without fail at the Fat Friar's house to discuss books. This month it was Moby Dick. Larry said it was, "the third and last time I'll read Moby Dick." His words struck me in the gut. I had never given much thought to the last time you read a book. But as a big re-reader, the notion both intrigued and terrified me.

I first read Moby Dick in college and was startled at how much I loved it. I still find myself quoting the most memorable lines to myself:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos gets such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 
Those words never fail to call out to the wanderer in me. Whenever it is a particularly damp and drizzly November in my soul.


Closing in on 70 years old, Larry is no slouch when it comes to exercising his mind. He belongs to two study groups and a book group, and he's reread Shakespeare's entire works, as well as much of Milton, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. But with so much still to read, Larry knew it would be his last foray with Melville's classic. He told us he read it first in high school and just devoured it, read it again in college where he found it somewhat problematic in several ways, and again this last time slowly and leisurely, with the weight of experience and age behind him. I love thinking about the different things you bring to the reading experience over time. The book doesn't change, but you do and your experience of it does. The idea of closing a book and knowing you'll never read it again fills me with sadness. But, at the same time, what a wonderful coda to a life spent reading and analyzing, absorbing and admiring the written word. Here's to many more pages, Uncle Larry, and to answers old and new to that best of all questions. 

Comments

  1. "deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off" --oh my gosh, I have been tempted that way myself! Maybe I should go to sea....

    Or read Moby Dick. Someday.

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  2. Oh wow. I'm just impressed you've read it once. Seriously, even in my 'classics diet' stage where I wouldn't read anything that wasn't worthy to be considered a world classic...even then I couldn't seem to get past the first page. And good grief, I've read Tolstoy...Dosteovsky...just can't seem to do it. :)

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  3. He sounds like such a great guy. Gosh, the last time you read a book....there's a thing to think about.
    Lyndsey

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  4. Great post. I've never read Moby Dick, but I love the passage you quoted--amazing.

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  5. Love this story. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. This beautifully written and a wonderful story. It gives one a lot to think about. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. Anonymous1:18 AM

    This is very touching and beautifully written. It is a sad notion, reading a book for the last time. I had never considered it before..

    Larry sounds like a very admirable man.

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  8. What a beautiful post. I've never really thought about how my perspective on a book might change throughout my life. Now I'm thinking about what books I need to re-read!

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  9. I do very little rereading, but was inexplicably sad when I finished the last (at the time) Tamora Pierce Tortall book. As much as I loved Alanna and her world, I knew I wouldn't be visiting there again. I am still very sad that I've read almost all the books in my school library (it's taken almost 15 years), because I used to be able to pick anything up and take it home.


    Fine. Now I have to go home and reread some Lenora Mattingly Weber to make myself feel better!

    ReplyDelete

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