“Herman Melville” — Jorge Luis Borges

“Herman Melville”


Jorge Luis Borges


He was always surrounded by the sea of his elders,

The Saxons, who named the ocean

The Whale-Road, thereby uniting

The two immense things, the whale

And the seas it endlessly ploughs.

The sea was always his. By the time his eyes

First took in the great waters of the high seas

He had already longed for and possessed it

On that other ocean, which is Writing,

And in the outline of the archetypes.

A man, he gave himself to the earth’s oceans

And to the exhausting days at sea

And he came to know the harpoon reddened

By Leviathan and he rippled sand

And the smells of nights and mornings

And chance on the horizon waiting in ambush

And the happiness of being brave

And the pleasure, at last, of spying Ithaca.

The ocean’s conqueror, he strode the solid

Earth out of which mountains grow

And on which he charts an imprecise course

As with a sleeping compass, motionless in time.

In the inherited shadows of the gardens

Melville moves through New England evenings,

But the sea possesses him. It is the shame

Of the Pequod’s mutilated captain,

The unreadable ocean with its furious squalls

And the abomination of the whiteness.

It is the great book. It is blue Proteus.

(English translation by Stephen Kessler)

“Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth (Thomas Pynchon)

By the time of “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853), acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Right in the heart of robber-baron capitalism, the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating, “I would prefer not to.” While his options go rapidly narrowing, his employer, a man of affairs and substance, is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener — this writer! — who, though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism, nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order, thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow? “Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth, presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka, Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Musil and others — take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you’re bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time.

From Thomas Pynchon’s 1993 essay “Sloth; Nearer, My Couch, to Thee.”

What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?


What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?

I asked this question on Twitter a few days ago (and then asked it a few more times, probably annoying some of the nice people who follow me), and I’ll write a bit about some of the responses later this week. I’m hoping too that some of this blog’s readers will share the novel (or novels) they’ve opened the most times without actually ever finishing.

I got to dwelling on the question a bit after talking with two friends, separately, over the past few weeks, both of whom were having a tough time with Gravity’s Rainbow. Up until last year, Gravity’s Rainbow would easily have been my first answer to this question. How many times did I try to read it between 1997 and 2015? Probably like, what, once a year? At least? And while I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow is the best starting place for Pynchon, the book is endlessly rewarding, and fits nicely into a little mental shelf comprised of books I made plenty of false starts on before finally finishing (Moby-DickUlyssesInfinite Jest…titles that cropped up on Twitter in answer to my silly question).

Gravity’s Rainbow impacted me so much that I immediately reread it. But I don’t think I would’ve gotten there if I hadn’t read more Pynchon first—and honestly, if I didn’t trust certain critics, if I didn’t trust the book’s reputation. But what about all the books I keep cracking open but can’t quite crack into? Am I missing something? I’m probably missing something.

I rounded up most of the novels I could think of that I’ve tried to read at least four times (conspicuously absent is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I’ve tried to read, hell, what four times? Five including an audiobook?)—I’ll riff a little on them. (As an aside: There are certain books I’ll probably never “finish,” that I have no aim of finishing, which I’m not riffing on here—I’ll write about them separately. The include Tristram ShandyThe Anatomy of MelancholyDon Quixote, and Finnegans Wake).

 Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, yet I can’t get past Ch. 6 of The Marble Faun. His pal Melville’s Moby-Dick is easily one of my favorite books, one that I return to again and again, and yet I can’t seem to get through Pierre without skimming. I “read” the book in grad school, but I didn’t really read it. I’m fairly determined to read both of these, if only to ameliorate my shame as a would-be completist.

Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is another book I’m determined to finish (at some point, not now! Not today!—is there another translation besides the Moncrieff?!). If the bookmark in the edition above is true, I made it to page 43 on my last attempt (stopping in the middle of a chapter—never a good sign).

By my wholly unscientific calculations, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is the book I’ve started and quit the most times. It’s not even a novel. It’s barely a novella. I should be able to finish it. Maybe it’s a stamina issue. Maybe if I could just sit and read it in one go…

I’ll never finish Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, but I tried to finish it repeatedly because I, uh, took it from a bookstore without, uh, purchasing it first—the only time I ever did such a thing. When I was a kid. A stupid kid. I confessed (on this blog, years ago—not to the store. The store is gone).

I think I might have read too much Thomas Bernhard too fast, because I keep stalling out on The Lime Works. To be fair, it’s almost impossible for me to read Bernhard in hot or warm weather, and I live in Florida, so the Thomas-Bernhard-reading-weather window is slim. Next winter.

Watching Tarr’s film adaptation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango was difficult enough. (No, I did not do it one sitting). I tried. I tried. I doubt I’ll ever try again.

My Struggle, Book 1. Again, I tried, I tried. Several times. I can’t get down with Knausgaard.

I’ve tried to read Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual every summer for a few years now, and I’m not really sure why I can’t get past Part I (about 75 pages or so in). Every time I start into Life, I feel as if I’m missing something, as if some of its humor or complexity is lost on me. Maybe I need something like A User’s Manual for Life A User’s Manual.

I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of titles (I’m really great at not finishing novels)—but these are the ones that stand out in recent years.

By way of closing: I’m almost finished with Stanley Elkin’s 1975 novel The Franchiser, which would’ve been on this list just a few months ago.

And again, I’d love to hear what novel (or novels) you’ve started the most times without finishing (yet!).


Jonah — Albert Pinkham Ryder


And here is “The Sermon,” Ch. IX of Herman Melville’s great novel Moby-Dick, in which Father Mapple gives us the tale of Jonah—

Father Mapple rose, and in a mild voice of unassuming authority ordered the scattered people to condense. “Starboard gangway, there! side away to larboard—larboard gangway to starboard! Midships! midships!”

There was a low rumbling of heavy sea-boots among the benches, and a still slighter shuffling of women’s shoes, and all was quiet again, and every eye on the preacher.

He paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.

This ended, in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog—in such tones he commenced reading the following hymn; but changing his manner towards the concluding stanzas, burst forth with a pealing exultation and joy—

     "The ribs and terrors in the whale,
     Arched over me a dismal gloom,
     While all God's sun-lit waves rolled by,
     And lift me deepening down to doom.

     "I saw the opening maw of hell,
     With endless pains and sorrows there;
     Which none but they that feel can tell—
     Oh, I was plunging to despair.

     "In black distress, I called my God,
     When I could scarce believe him mine,
     He bowed his ear to my complaints—
     No more the whale did me confine.

     "With speed he flew to my relief,
     As on a radiant dolphin borne;
     Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone
     The face of my Deliverer God.

     "My song for ever shall record
     That terrible, that joyful hour;
     I give the glory to my God,
     His all the mercy and the power."

Nearly all joined in singing this hymn, which swelled high above the howling of the storm. A brief pause ensued; the preacher slowly turned over the leaves of the Bible, and at last, folding his hand down upon the proper page, said: “Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—’And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.'”

“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. Continue reading “Jonah — Albert Pinkham Ryder”

“First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville” | On Audiobooks of “Difficult” Novels

Moby-Dick, Rockwell Kent
I am a huge fan of audiobooks. I’ve pretty much always got one going—for commutes, jogs, workaday chores, etc. The usual. I love to listen to audiobooks of books I’ve already read, in particular, but I of course listen to new stuff too, or stuff that’s new to me, anyway. There just isn’t time to get to all the reading and rereading I want to do otherwise.

Beyond the fact that audiobooks allow me to experience more books than I would be able to otherwise, I like the medium itself: I like a reader reading me a story. Like a lot of people, some of my earliest, best memories are of someone reading to me. (The narrative in my family was always that my mother fell asleep while reading me The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and that I picked it up and finished it on my own and that’s how I “learned” to read—I’m not really sure of this tale’s veracity, which makes it a good story, of course). So I’ve never fully understood folks who sniff their noses at audiobooks as less than real reading. 

Indeed, the best literature is best read aloud. It is for the ear, as William H. Gass puts it in his marvelous essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.

Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Melville—a difficult foursome, no? I would argue that the finest audiobooks—those with the most perceptive performers (often guided by a great director and/or producer) can guide an auditor’s ear from sound to sense to spirit. A great audiobook can channel the pneuma of a complex and so-called difficult novel by animating it, channeling its life force. The very best audiobooks can teach their auditors how to read the novels—how to hear and feel their spirit.

I shall follow (with one slight deviation, substituting one William for another) Gass’s foursome by way of example. Joyce initiates his list, so:

I had read Joyce’s Ulysses twice before I first experience RTÉ’s 1982 dramatized, soundtracked, sound-effected, full cast recording of the novel (download it via that link). I wrote about the Irish broadcast company’s production at length when I first heard it, but briefly: This is a full cast of voices bringing the bustle and energy (and torpor and solemnity and ecstasy and etc.) of Bloomsday to vivid vivacious vivifying life. It’s not just that RTÉ’s cast captures the tone of Ulysses—all its brains and hearts, its howls and its harrumphs—it’s also that this production masterfully expresses the pace and the rhythm of Ulysses. Readers (unnecessarily) daunted by Ulysses’s reputation should consider reading the book in tandem with RTÉ’s production.

Woolf is next on Gass’s list. Orlando is my favorite book of hers, although I have been told by scholars and others that it is not as serious or important as To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway. It is probably not as “difficult” either; nevertheless, put it on the list! Clare Higgins’s reading of Orlando remains one of my favorite audiobooks of all times: arch without being glib, Higgins animates the novel with a picaresque force that subtly highlights the novel’s wonderful absurdities.

Faulkner…well, did you recall that I admitted I would not keep complete faith to Gass’s short list? Certainly Faulkner’s long twisted sentences evoke their own mossy music, but alas, I’ve yet to find an audiobook with a reader whose take on Faulkner I could tolerate. I tried Grover Gardner’s take on Absalom, Absalom! but alas!—our reader often took pains to untangle what was properly tangled. I don’t know. I was similarly disappointed in an audiobook of The Sound and the Fury (I don’t recall the reader). And yet I’m sure Faulkner could be translated into a marvelous audiobook (Apprise me, apprise me!).

Let me substitute another difficult William: Gaddis. I don’t know if I could’ve cracked J R if I hadn’t first read it in tandem with Nick Sullivan’s audiobook. J R is a tragicomic opera of voices—unattributed voices!—and it would be easy to quickly lose heart without signposts to guide you. Sullivan’s reading is frankly amazing, a baroque, wild, hilarious, and ultimately quite moving performance of what may be the most important American novel of the late twentieth century. A recent reread of J R was almost breezy; Sullivan had taught me how to read it.

Mighty Melville caps Gass’s list. I had read Moby-Dick a number of times, studying it under at least two excellent teachers, before I first heard William Hootkins read it. (Hootkins, a character actor, is probably most well-known as the X-wing pilot Porkins in A New Hope). As a younger reader, I struggled with Moby-Dick, even as it intrigued me. I did not, however, understand just how funny it was, and even though I intuited its humor later in life, I didn’t fully experience it until Hootkins’ reading. Hootkins inhabits Ishmael with a dynamic, goodwilled aplomb, but where his reading really excels is in handling the novel’s narrative macroscopic shifts, as Ishmael’s ego seems to fold into the crew/chorus, and dark Ahab takes over at times. But not just Ahab—Hootkins embodies Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb with humor and pathos. Hootkins breaths spirit into Melville’s music. I cannot overstate how much I recommend Hootkins audiobook, particularly for readers new to Moby-Dick. And readers old to Moby-Dick too.

“What can we do to find out how writing is written? Why, we listen to writers who have written well,” advises (or scolds, if you like) William Gass. The best audiobook performances of difficult books don’t merely provide shortcuts to understanding those books—rather, they teach auditors how to hear them, how to feel them, how to read them.

Kill them in their flush of bloom


From On the Slain Collegians: Selections from the poems of Herman Melville. Edited, and with woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi. Noonday Press, 1971.

Three Books



Pierre, or The Ambiguities by Herman Melville. First edition hardback, Harper Collins, 1995. Color illustrations, many blatantly erotic, including the cover, by Maurice Sendak (in the mood of Billy Blake). Design by Cynthia Krupat. The editor Hershel Parker has reconstructed the original, shorter version of Pierre that Melville sabotaged (according to Parker) by adding convoluted subplots (in revenge against the Harper brothers who did not wish to publish the book). This is the so-called “Kraken Edition”; the title comes from a letter Melville sent to Hawthorne. If Moby-Dick was the whale, Pierre was his giant monstrous squid.



My Romance by Gordon Lish. 1993 Norton trade paperback. Cover design by R.D. Scudellari. There are two paragraphs in this 142-page novel; the first starts on page 1 and ends on page 142; the second begins and ends on page 142 and is all of one sentence.



Erotic Poems, an Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets collection. Borzoi/Knopf, tiny hardback 1994. Jacket design by Barbara de Wilde. Happy Valentine’s.

Misgivings (Herman Melville/Antonio Frasconi)


From On the Slain Collegians: Selections from the poems of Herman Melville. Edited, and with woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi. Noonday Press, 1971.

The Punctuation of Moby-Dick


(Design by Nicholas Rougeuxvia).

Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a bunch of literary recipes and a Bosch painting

Enjoy Thanksgiving with this menu of literary recipes:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

Ernest Hemingway’s Absinthe Cocktail, Death in the Afternoon

Vladimir Nabokov’s Eggs à la Nabocoque

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

Robert Crumb’s Macaroni Casserole

Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Charles Dickens’s Own Punch

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

Willam Faulkner’s Hot Toddy

Christmas Bonus:  George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding

Map of the world, showing major whaling grounds and the inferred track of the Pequod — Barry Moser


Three Books


Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. First edition trade paperback by The University of California Press, based on the 1979 Arion Press edition. Cover illustration by Barry Moser. I have too many copies of Moby-Dick.IMG_0158

Call Me Ishmael by Charles Olson. 1971 trade paperback by City Lights Books. No designer credited. Call Me Ishmael is a perfect book.IMG_0160

Selected Tales and Poems of Herman Melville (Richard Chase, editor).  1950 Rinehart Editions trade paperback by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. I’m a big fan of these midcentury Rinehart Editions paperbacks—they have an odd signature look to them.

Read Herman Melville’s story “The Fiddler”

“The Fiddler”


Herman Melville

So my poem is damned, and immortal fame is not for me! I am nobody forever and ever. Intolerable fate!

Snatching my hat, I dashed down the criticism, and rushed out into Broadway, where enthusiastic throngs were crowding to a circus in a side-street near by, very recently started, and famous for a capital clown.

Presently my old friend Standard rather boisterously accosted me.

“Well met, Helmstone, my boy! Ah! what’s the matter? Haven’t been committing murder? Ain’t flying justice? You look wild!”

“You have seen it then?” said I, of course referring to the criticism.

“Oh yes; I was there at the morning performance. Great clown, I assure you. But here comes Hautboy. Hautboy—Helmstone.”

Without having time or inclination to resent so mortifying a mistake, I was instantly soothed as I gazed on the face of the new acquaintance so unceremoniously introduced. His person was short and full, with a juvenile, animated cast to it. His complexion rurally ruddy; his eye sincere, cheery, and gray. His hair alone betrayed that he was not an overgrown boy. From his hair I set him down as forty or more.

“Come, Standard,” he gleefully cried to my friend, “are you not going to the circus? The clown is inimitable, they say. Come; Mr. Helmstone, too—come both; and circus over, we’ll take a nice stew and punch at Taylor’s.”

The sterling content, good humor, and extraordinary ruddy, sincere expression of this most singular new acquaintance acted upon me like magic. It seemed mere loyalty to human nature to accept an invitation from so unmistakably kind and honest a heart.

During the circus performance I kept my eye more on Hautboy than on the celebrated clown. Hautboy was the sight for me. Such genuine enjoyment as his struck me to the soul with a sense of the reality of the thing called happiness. The jokes of the clown he seemed to roll under his tongue as ripe magnum bonums. Now the foot, now the hand, was employed to attest his grateful applause. At any hit more than ordinary, he turned upon Standard and me to see if his rare pleasure was shared. In a man of forty I saw a boy of twelve; and this too without the slightest abatement of my respect. Because all was so honest and natural, every expression and attitude so graceful with genuine good-nature, that the marvelous juvenility of Hautboy assumed a sort of divine and immortal air, like that of some forever youthful god of Greece. Continue reading “Read Herman Melville’s story “The Fiddler””

Queequeg in His Coffin — Bill Sienkiewicz


Moby-Dick — Ken Taylor


“Merry Christmas” (Moby-Dick)

“Merry Christmas”

from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick

At length, towards noon, upon the final dismissal of the ship’s riggers, and after the Pequod had been hauled out from the wharf, and after the ever-thoughtful Charity had come off in a whale-boat, with her last gift- a nightcap for Stubb, the second mate, her brother-in-law, and a spare Bible for the steward- after all this, the two Captains, Peleg and Bildad, issued from the cabin, and turning to the chief mate, Peleg said:

“Now, Mr. Starbuck, are you sure everything is right? Captain Ahab is all ready- just spoke to him- nothing more to be got from shore, eh? Well, call all hands, then. Muster ‘em aft here- blast ‘em!”

“No need of profane words, however great the hurry, Peleg,” said Bildad, “but away with thee, friend Starbuck, and do our bidding.”

How now! Here upon the very point of starting for the voyage, Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad were going it with a high hand on the quarter-deck, just as if they were to be joint-commanders at sea, as well as to all appearances in port. And, as for Captain Ahab, no sign of him was yet to be seen; only, they said he was in the cabin. But then, the idea was, that his presence was by no means necessary in getting the ship under weigh, and steering her well out to sea. Indeed, as that was not at all his proper business, but the pilot’s; and as he was not yet completely recovered- so they said- therefore, Captain Ahab stayed below. And all this seemed natural enough; especially as in the merchant service many captains never show themselves on deck for a considerable time after heaving up the anchor, but remain over the cabin table, having a farewell merry-making with their shore friends, before they quit the ship for good with the pilot.

But there was not much chance to think over the matter, for Captain Peleg was now all alive. He seemed to do most of the talking and commanding, and not Bildad.

“Aft here, ye sons of bachelors,” he cried, as the sailors lingered at the main-mast. “Mr. Starbuck, drive aft.”

“Strike the tent there!”- was the next order. As I hinted before, this whalebone marquee was never pitched except in port; and on board the Pequod, for thirty years, the order to strike the tent was well known to be the next thing to heaving up the anchor.

“Man the capstan! Blood and thunder!- jump!”- was the next command, and the crew sprang for the handspikes.

Now in getting under weigh, the station generally occupied by the pilot is the forward part of the ship. And here Bildad, who, with Peleg, be it known, in addition to his other officers, was one of the licensed pilots of the port- he being suspected to have got himself made a pilot in order to save the Nantucket pilot-fee to all the ships he was concerned in, for he never piloted any other craft- Bildad, I say, might now be seen actively engaged in looking over the bows for the approaching anchor, and at intervals singing what seemed a dismal stave of psalmody, to cheer the hands at the windlass, who roared forth some sort of chorus about the girls in Booble Alley, with hearty good will. Nevertheless, not three days previous, Bildad had told them that no profane songs would be allowed on board the Pequod, particularly in getting under weigh; and Charity, his sister, had placed a small choice copy of Watts in each seaman’s berth. Continue reading ““Merry Christmas” (Moby-Dick)”

A Bunch of Literary Recipes

Enjoy Thanksgiving with this menu of literary recipes:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

Ernest Hemingway’s Absinthe Cocktail, Death in the Afternoon

Vladimir Nabokov’s Eggs à la Nabocoque

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

Robert Crumb’s Macaroni Casserole

Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Charles Dickens’s Own Punch

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

Willam Faulkner’s Hot Toddy

Christmas Bonus:  George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding