On Reading Moby Dick During COVID

“Call me Ishmael.” 

For over 170 years he’s been reaching out his hand and inviting us to leave our familiar shore and head with him out to sea.  

Sometimes, like Ishmael, we take off with him for the long, dense journey through 135 chapters because we have nothing particular to interest us on shore.  Sometimes we know this need to “drive off the spleen” or regulate our circulation.  Sometimes, a damp drizzly November in our soul…January 2021, a COVID Winter, almost a year into the pandemic.

So while my sister lay on the couch playing Word Chums, the dog asleep at her feet, while my niece knitted, and friends binge-watched Netflix, I read Moby Dick.  I’m not saying that to make myself out as particularly noble in the adventures I choose.  I’d already seen all the hit Netflix series – “The Crown”, “Lupin”, “The Queen’s Gambit”….and I can’t play Word Chums well enough to beat my sister. 

No, not nobility but mindlessly scrolling through yet more unread emails led me to take Ishmael’s hand.  That notice that the Folio Athenaeum and Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle were co-sponsoring a six- week read of Moby Dick. Two of my favorite organizations in Seattle, how could I refuse? And besides, Lillian was leading the book group. 

Lillian Dabney is the Librarian at the Folio where for three long years I struggled over writing my own book about going to “sea” and learning to sail. Between writing, editing and lots of staring out the window on Puget Sound, Lillian and I would talk about point of view and character development.  She’d recommend books I’d never heard of, opened new worlds in literature that I never would have ventured into.  

“Every time is a good time to read Moby Dick”, she told us. 

I wasn’t so sure.  

When I was preparing to leave Seattle several years ago for my own adventure at “sea”, I was given a blue leather bound, gold-plated edition of Moby Dick from a young couple. I’d read Moby Dick once decades before at a time when I was seeking to knock off a few more titles from that endless list of “books I should read” or “books that it would be impressive to say I’d read” to impress my Word Chum and Netflix watching family. I remember reading it as an adventure story with some rather long boring parts and recognized there was something here I was missing. I figured I’d pass on my fancy tome to my eldest nephew who likes reading such classics.  I couldn’t imagine ever reading it again.  

But then, its COVID.  It’s not any time, but this time and perhaps the time to read Moby Dick again for a Zoom book group which enables a homesick guy on the east coast to connect to my familiar shore of Seattle right after dinner and before my bedtime. So perhaps, yes, “The best time to read Moby Dick is now,” as Lillian reminded us.  

And so thanks to an invitation and my own “November in my soul” this COVID winter and spring I read Moby Dick.  Twice, in fact. 

The first time through felt like I’d felt so often the past year. Overwhelmed, lost in chapters I couldn’t always follow, obscure references about things I imagined I might have once known, words I’d never heard of (and grateful to learn were sometimes Melville’s own inventions!), a plot I struggled to make sense of. The erudite readers in our group saw things I never saw. Commented on details I missed.  Yes, Netflix sounded good sometimes. I’d never gotten this lost, confused and overwhelmed in watching “The Crown.”  

The day after we at last finished, Lillian proposed we start over and read Moby Dick again.  I laughed. I mean, I’d never have imagined doing that. Had I in fact ever read any book over again right away? I mean with so many books, you have to move on.  And I mean the absurdity of it – to take on 615 gold-leafed pages – all again?  But yes, I had to admit, its still a COVID winter.  And if not this time what time to spend six more weeks reading Moby Dick?  My Monday nights looked like they’d be free for at least the next year as far as I could tell.  

So, “Call me Ishmael,” one more time.  But this time through I knew a bit more and understood a bit more about where Ishmael was taking us. I knew there was so much more here that I wanted to learn,  realized in fact that I not only could but I wanted to read it again. What was it that I recognized I needed in reading it again? 

Like some of my friends, I’ve felt the dislocation, discombobulation of going through time the past year. Each day, each week, each month a relentless cycle of “the same” wondering how it could be Thursday night…Saturday night…yet again, trying to remember what it was I’d actually done the past week.  

Reading Moby Dick again was different.  Instead of going through a haze in time week after week, re-reading Moby Dick deepened my experience of time.  As I read it more deeply, deliberately, this second time, I wasn’t quite as lost in the turns of the plot and intricacies of language. I was learning, hearing differently. Deepening, not lost, in the turning of pages, the passage of time.  

Yes, “anytime is a good time to read Moby Dick,” and perhaps read differently through each season of time we read it in. Through the long year of masking, distancing, and endless hand washing, through the anxiety and stress of grocery shopping, and the isolation of being at home alone, there was Ishmael inviting us into an intimacy that felt of another world. As he climbed into bed with Queequeg, as he let down his guard and opened his heart, as he put down his hubris and discovered Queequeg’s humanity, legs entwined and pipe smoking shared, he opened my longing for such an intimacy with one another that seemed lost on a forgotten shore. What a time in this COVID time, to be led by the hand (can you imagine!), with an invitation to entwine ourselves in another’s humanity, no longer stranger.  To invite us to recover our own humanity and see it in one another that we keep hidden in our small mindedness and prejudice.  

There again, Ishmael, inviting us into a squeezing of hands that I had forgotten how much I missed. There with hands in the spermaceti with him, squeezing hands, (aghast that we can’t actually be doing this, can we?) and recalling me to the longing for it.  When was the last time I held and touched another’s hand? 

Amidst all the imprisonments of my small fears, there is Ishmael who is not so afraid, meeting fear with curiosity.  Uncovering within him, within us, the discovery of what is beyond our prejudices, our racism, the humanity, the human beings we are.  Taking us by the hand and leading the way through New Bedford, on the Pequod out to sea, in the wonder of the whale, opening, expanding our small world confinements with curiosity, an openness to discovery. 

It does my soul good to join him with all his prejudices and my own that are so resistant to leave a familiar shore, so resistant to change.  He takes me by hand and sets out to introduce me to the world again – Black, White, Asian, Savage, Cannibal, Christian, Pagan… With his hand in mine, watching his, my own racism, prejudices, assumptions expanded, re-thought, reworked by his curious and caring imagination. 

As I read on, found I didn’t so much read Moby Dick as it read me. How I find myself, even and especially where I do not want to be found, in all these characters at sea. But this year unmasked me, as at times I found myself unrecognizable to myself. Whose self-incrimination, depression, out-of-sortness is this?, I wondered.  Who is this feeling like I’d never felt before?  

And so this year, I too have gotten to know Starbuck in me, whose humanity is his strength and his downfall. That part of me that can’t stop doing what I am accustomed to doing, going along, fulfilling “orders”,” deceiving myself into thinking it might be, could be, otherwise.  Unable to turn to a bigger imagination of what might be possible but only returning to an outdated morality and ethics.  As I watch him, I wonder myself on my own stepping up and stepping away from the responsibility of what is required. Lacking with him the imaginative capacity to see what it would be to step beyond ways that do not serve anymore.  

Here, too, with Ishmael, covering up my suspicions of what I need to do.  I know this: “But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me.”  (103)… As it has been with me.  

Here, me in Stubb, in my awful pride when I have killed my own “whale”.  

Here, too, like Pip lost at sea, lost to myself.  I’ve known something of it this year, what it is to be out there alone at times in rolling waves, no clear rescue in sight.

Recognize the nobility in the harpooners who eat last, these essential workers, who do not abandon the ship to the last, stand on the masts sinking in the waves looking out, doing what they came to do, what they do.  

As I read on, wonder at my own sea voyaging, my own stepping away from what had been my life. Am I too the Blacksmith who set sail to heal a wound that could not be healed? 

This year, I not only read this, I get this, we, vulnerable humanity in our tiny boat, Queequeg holding up the lantern through the foggy night, far from the ship, “hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair”. (240)

And yes, Ahab, hell-bent and not able to turn aside, even as he leads his crew to their deaths.  

And thankfully, sometimes, too, Ishmael who again and again takes me by hand, open to wonder and discovery. Perhaps it’s why he’s the one to survive.  

Moby Dick reads me. 

And so, this COVID winter and spring as I watched the storming of the US Capitol, I read Moby Dick. Saw the mad men out there, in me, Ahab’s “madness maddened,” unable to turn away even from our better judgment.  

Read Moby Dick as I watch Derek Chauvin’s trial, Facebook Posts and YouTube videos of more and more and more Black and Brown men and women people killed by police.  Daunte Wright…Marvin Scott…Ma’Khia Bryant….. There Ishmael, taking me by the hand again to see, to weep, to rage, to see the whiteness we refuse to see, don’t want to see, this empty slate filled with our fears.  

Read Moby Dick as I read of mass shooting after mass shooting….Atlanta, Boulder, L.A.…. Wonder on this Tahiti in our souls that we need to ground us and call us through the tumultuous sea.  

As my aunt, elderly and in a nursing home, dies of COVID, read Moby Dick.  As COVID cases world-wide surpass 100 million…2.5 million deaths….500,000 in the US alone, read Moby Dick.  At my best, can feel what I do not want to feel, how we all are like it or not “enveloped in whale-lines.”  Sometimes, in hearing the stories, seeing the images, can imagine how the most vulnerable among us feel, the cut of the rope against their necks as it is as well against our own, as we “realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.” (301)

So, yes, “It is always a good time to read Moby Dick,” and this COVID winter and spring Ishmael leads me where I want and do not want to go, to see what I could choose not to see. Always sending me out, to further exploration, wonder, to breaking down of all our small walls and considerations, out into discovery, out to sea.  

And here, as well, reading Moby Dick, recovering from my first vaccine, and now my second. I know the temptation of the Lee Shore – the deadly longing to go back, to return to the safe-haven of the past even though there is no going back. Fear that we may not have learned, may again choose not to know what has been uncovered, revealed about ourselves, our lack of humanity, the systemic racism that is a whale line around our necks, the climate crisis that we do not want to recognize.  

Perhaps, I’ve turned to preaching…

Which is something Ishmael never does.  But calls us out, full of questions.  Shows us instead of preaching the contours and shapes of the whales bones, peels back his skin, wonders on the meaning of skin, the meaning of whiteness. A  trustworthy guide when we’ve lost trust. 

Gaslighting is in full force today, to deny what happened this year, is happening now, to just move on and forget. But can we turn from the treachery of safety?  To again risk discomfort so we can live our life, for life? To trust ourselves to the sea so we might each find our Tahiti?  What will it take for us to turn aside?  Can we?  Do we all have to die except a survivor like Ishmael?  Could it not have ended differently?  Can it for us? Will we perish before we can turn away?  That’s our question at the end of the discussion. 

I could slide into preaching again…. 

So, yes, Ishmael, take me by the hand.  Continue to lead me where I did not want to go. Clear my eyes.  Reveal me to myself.  Open me to wonder. Go with me, out, into the sea.

One thought on “On Reading Moby Dick During COVID”

  1. Peter, thank you for finding Ishmael and telling us what he means to you. I’m in my 4th reading of Moby Dick, first time in high school, 1962, one year before the presidential assassination — the times we used to live in… So good to hear your voice in your words. Hope to see you soon, when I’m out to Concord for the annual Thoreau Gathering (July).


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