How to read Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
By Geoffrey Sanborn
I like that anecdote for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that it gives us a glimpse of Moby-Dick in its original habitat: the remote, scruffy margins of 19th-century literary culture. For a good 70 years after its original publication, Moby-Dick was a book with almost no visibility and absolutely no prestige. It was possible to open it with no expectations—or, even better, to open it as the schooner captain did, with nothing more than a shadowy anticipation of strangeness, wildness, and sadness.
These days most people think of Moby-Dick not as a strange, wild, sad story but as a Hard Book, full of boring whaling talk and hypersubtle symbolism, the kind of thing that you're forced to read in school and that three-quarters of the class never finishes. As a result, most readers begin the book with their guard up. They can't get into it. It can't get into them. They put it down and never pick it up again.
But Moby-Dick wasn't meant to be a rigorous, depleting experience, a triathlon for the housebound. It was meant to be a stimulant to thought and feeling; it was meant to make your mind a more interesting and enjoyable place. So if the prospect of reading Moby-Dick makes you feel even a little bit daunted, try to get as close to that earlier reading experience as you can. Get an unannotated edition with no introduction and no essays in the back. Clear your mind of expectations and open it to chapter one. Listen with nothing more than ordinary human curiosity to the voice that begins speaking to you.
It's not as easy as it sounds. Most Americans have been trained to revere the "classics" and to think that the right way to read such books is to seek out their cleverly hidden meanings. It can be surprisingly difficult to come to Moby-Dick with the kind of idle, flexible interest that you bring to most of the other things you read. But the secret to Moby-Dick is that there is no secret. Everything that matters is right on the surface.
And that's because the surface is where you make contact with the voice that speaks in the book. That voice asks to be called Ishmael, but it doesn't limit itself to the consciousness of that character; it roams at will around and beyond the ship the Pequod. What it wants above all else is to be in a meaningful relationship with you, and it will do almost anything—tell jokes, coin words, switch genres, change moods, share dreams, kill characters, hint at blasphemies, fly into rhapsodies, go spinning off into the ether of philosophical speculation—in order to make that happen.
Go with it. If you find yourself enjoying some passage without knowing why, if you find yourself stimulated into more intense thoughts and feelings, if you find yourself sinking beneath the overused upper layers of your personality, then you've "gotten" the book. Moby-Dick isn't about the Problem of the Universe, as one of its reviewers derisively suggested. It's about the effort to think about the Problem of the Universe in the company of another mind, the effort to feel, in the deepest recesses of your consciousness, at least temporarily unalone. Nothing is solved when the Pequod goes down, but you and Ishmael are still miraculously afloat.
Geoffrey Sanborn is an associate professor at Bard College and has written a book and several essays on Melville.
How to read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
By Marcelle Clements
Alas, many readers never get past the first 50 pages. They drift away, perhaps persuading themselves that they have read Proust. But you can't understand the beginning of In Search of Lost Time if you haven't read the end. And every volume is different from the last. The spirit of the work seems to change, expand, even to mutate as we ourselves evolve, if only because it takes us so long to finish it that we are no longer the person we were when we began. Certainly, we are no longer the same reader. We are seized with a strange, deep affection for long sentences, for precisely articulated aesthetic judgments, for witty illuminations about cruel duchesses and crazy barons, for portraits of divine, self-deceiving men and the deliciously ambiguous women who torment them, and we probably no longer even remember our original reason for beginning In Search of Lost Time.
This—how all is ephemeral in ourselves, especially desire—is one of the great themes of Marcel Proust's masterpiece. Indeed, if you make it to the end, you may well find yourself picking up the first volume and rereading the opening pages with something resembling bliss—your biggest regret that you no longer have the whole experience ahead of you—and thereby demonstrating once again how right Proust is when he declares that the only true paradise is paradise lost.
If you want to finish Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, here is the secret: Read fast. Read for plot—though you won't understand what the plot is until the end. Don't be frightened by the size of the novel. Critics scare readers off by talking of it as a cathedral. Everything about it is big: its size and reputation, its ambition, the chunk of history it encompasses. But 4,500 pages isn't much, considering its prodigious cast of characters; its unparalleled metaphors, allusions, digressions (an army of parenthetical remarks); its sinuous paragraphs; its unbelievable sentences (sometimes several pages long)—profuse, infinitesimally detailed descriptions alternating with bald statements of huge ideas—that sum up the previously unarticulated, ineffable relationship we have to love, loss, death, truth, nobility, vulgarity, culture, prejudice, ideals, art, women's fashion and military fashion, flowers, smells, names, words, places and the idea of place, memory, desire, and regret.
All you need to know to start is that this is, in Proust's words, a story told by "a man who says 'I.'" This narrator, an educated man with a great memory, has trouble sleeping. In the opening pages, in the dark, we are bobbing about on the surface of his consciousness. Soon he is remembering, as a little boy, yearning upstairs in bed for his mamma's good-night kiss while, down in the garden, his parents, grandparents, and two zany maiden aunts converse with the wonderfully elegant Monsieur Swann, a family friend. Night deepens. The blooming hawthorn bush releases its bittersweet scent. And now is when you, the reader, inexorably drawn into Proust's beautiful sentences, are mightily tempted to pause and admire the metaphors, the music of the language. No! Don't stop reading! Don't lie down in the snow! You can read Proust for the poetry of his prose, but not if you want to read all of In Search of Lost Time. You must do violence to yourself and keep going. Don't forget: You can always return. If you do as I suggest, before too long the narrator's recollections are so intimately connected with yours that you can't always distinguish between them. Then you're truly on your way.
Marcelle Clements teaches In Search of Lost Time at New York University. Her most recent novel is Midsummer.
How to read The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
By Burton Pike
You need to forget about a novel having a beginning, middle, and end. You need to stop thinking and let yourself feel, get the pleasure of the striking images and language, recognize the emotions they arouse in you without trying to explain them to yourself. Musil gets into the soul of his characters, into their hearts and minds. You the reader are his target; he wants to subtly change your life. Let yourself respond to the sensuous language with which this novel presents a kaleidoscope of situations and characters, the pieces coming together in beautiful little explosive combinations. Here is one:
"I've been expecting you," she said, leaving Ulrich uncertain whether she meant this as a kindness or a rebuke. The hand she gave him was plump and weightless.
He held it a moment too long, his thoughts unable to let go of this hand at once. It rested in his own like a fleshy petal; its pointed nails, like beetle wings, seemed poised to fly off with her at any moment into the improbable. He was overwhelmed by the exaltation of this female hand, basically a rather shameless human organ that, like a dog's muzzle, will touch anything and yet is publicly considered the seat of fidelity, nobility, and tenderness. During these few seconds, he noted that there were several rolls of fat on Diotima's neck, covered with the finest skin; her hair was wound into a Grecian knot, which stood out stiffly and in its perfection resembled a wasp's nest. Ulrich felt a hostile impulse, an urge to offend this smiling woman, and yet he could not quite resist her beauty.
For Musil, there can be no thinking without feeling. Yet he shows us in one encounter after another how feelings running riot are dangerous. ("All lines lead to the war," Musil wrote about the novel.) Trained as a scientist, he understood that science had created a new world far ahead of people's ability to cope with it. "We have gained reality and lost dream," says the novel's narrator. Diotima, unhappily married to a government official, searches for "soul"; Clarisse, a free spirit in a contentious marriage with a failed artist, spirals into madness; Arnheim, the Prussian industrialist adored by Diotima, talks of coal prices and soul but is really interested in Austrian oil fields. Over all hovers the figure of the sex-murderer Moosbrugger, who is quite insane. The characters are unaware of impending disaster, though the collapse of their world is only months away.
For Musil the problems of that world are still with us and still unsolved. A bridge must be found to a new kind of society, a union of reason and soul. In the end Ulrich, with his sister, Agathe, steps back from a world that is flying apart and embarks on a journey—"on the edge of the possible"—toward a "day-bright mysticism."
Burton Pike has translated and taught Musil's novels and stories.