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Reading Moby Dick at the Beach

January 16, 2023

After taking down all the stuff I’d put up in hopes of a bigger holiday celebration and getting over my Paxlovid relapse, I decided to go someplace warm and sunny to look at the ocean. What’s the warmest place I could get to on a direct flight from Columbus? I booked a ticket for Miami because I’d never been there and wanted to see it. I spent four days gazing out at the ocean, watching people go by, and occasionally reading Moby Dick, which I’d never read before–finally I was in the mood!

Reading Moby Dick at the beach was especially amusing because as soon as I opened the book, I found that Ishmael begins by saying what I was feeling:
“whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzling 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 get 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 of us with weak knees have to settle for getting to the edge of the ocean, an urge Ishmael describes as common to all people: “Look at the crowds of water-gazers,” he says, “they must get as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in.” Because “there is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water.”

And so I embarked on the tale of Ahab’s search for the white whale, and discovered, as many have before me, the charms of the voyage itself, like Ishmael’s observation that “a laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer.”

I was gazing at the ocean more than I was reading, so I only got to Chapter 42 before my sunshine idyll was over and I had to get ready for the flight home. I got on an airplane, put two books in the seat pocket so I could reach for the second when I finished the first, a Jim Butcher book I was already three-quarters of the way through, and then had to get off the airplane in a hurry, as it was broken. After limping down and up the stairs attached to the little “American Eagle” planes, I settled into my seat in the second airplane and couldn’t find my second book, Moby Dick. Well, I thought, I left it in the seat pocket of the first airplane. Luckily, I had a third book because I was sitting in planes for almost seven hours for a two and a half hour flight.

When I told my family I’d left Moby Dick in the seat pocket, there were jokes about how every time I got on a plane I would be checking the pockets for the elusive book. But then today as I was unpacking I found my copy at the bottom of my backpack, underneath something I’d shoved in there in a hurry.

The rest of my reading will be in a frozen, landlocked state, but I’m off to a good start and in a much better frame of mind.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2023 2:24 pm

    Glad you found your book. What a fitting opening. Your pictures are stunning. I want to go to a warm beach!!

    • January 17, 2023 9:56 am

      It was great to see the sun and get warm.
      Like many other modern beaches, Miami beach has been artificially bolstered with sand hauled in from elsewhere, which gives it a steep slope down to the ocean and a lip at the edge so you have to take a big step down to get into the ocean.

  2. January 16, 2023 6:17 pm

    I hope you enjoy completing it, Jeanne, eventually! I got about a third of the way through a couple of years ago but, although enjoying the way it was chunked up into short-ish chapters and appreciating the dry humour, realised that I found it exhausting – I swapped to something lighter (‘temporarily’ you understand) and, well, it’s slipped into a metaphorical plane seat pocket waiting for me to voyage again ….whenever the urge takes me.

    • January 17, 2023 9:58 am

      Ha, a metaphorical plane seat pocket! I feel like I’m going to keep at it, although I’m also reading other books at the same time–as you say, the chapters are short and so it’s easy to put it down.

  3. January 17, 2023 7:20 am

    Aw, it sounds like a wonderful vacation! I read Moby Dick twice, for two different college classes, and it’s wry and funny but oh my God there is SO much of it, especially if you are reading it for a class. I’m really glad you’re enjoying it more than I was able to. ❤

    • January 17, 2023 9:59 am

      I escaped having it assigned, probably because I didn’t take American lit. I was all about British literature as an undergraduate, busy avoiding the puritans!

  4. Tabatha permalink
    January 17, 2023 7:48 am

    Back when I was on Twitter, I followed an account that posted random sentences from Moby Dick. Such beautiful random sentences! I love what you’ve posted here. Glad your trip lifted your frame of mind!

    • January 17, 2023 10:01 am

      It does have beautiful random sentences. Because I’d enjoyed Dracula Daily I signed up for Whale Weekly, but the emails for Whale Weekly were too long and I didn’t enjoy the order as I did for Dracula. They did pique my interest, though.

    • January 17, 2023 10:03 am

      I think that account’s still going, although admittedly it hasn’t popped up on my feed for a couple or so months – around the time Melon Usk started doing his thang.

  5. January 18, 2023 6:48 am

    What an amazing getaway this was! Reading Moby Dick alone at the beach while soaking up warmth and sunshine. Not the kind of beach read that you can zip through with only half your attention on it, though!
    I was sick over Christmas, though not with Covid so we were able to salvage some of the visiting with my wearing a mask and running our air filter, etc.

    • January 18, 2023 8:26 am

      I rarely read anything with only part of my attention on it. Maybe nonfiction in a waiting room.
      I was thinking that over my lifetime there have been plenty of Christmases with someone sick; at my son’s first Christmas, when he was 9 months old, my dad went with me to take him to the urgent care in the town where my parents lived. We didn’t use to worry too much about everybody catching whatever cold someone had. How things change.

  6. January 18, 2023 10:51 am

    Yay for finally getting to Moby Dick! The whale processing chapters are a bit gruesome, but I do like the book and have read it a couple times. Glad you are enjoying it too and actually got to start reading it by the seaside!

    • January 18, 2023 11:11 am

      There are definitely parts of the book that make me uneasy even besides the hunting aspect (although I liked the chapter on whiteness, especially thinking of snow at home while I was warm, there was a racial aspect that didn’t age well). But I do like the range of the story, the way it goes hither and thither!

  7. January 18, 2023 11:12 pm

    I take it there were no whales in sight!

    • January 19, 2023 7:41 am

      There were not. In fact, I thought there was a paucity of sea life, but I did see some fishing boats on the horizon.

  8. January 26, 2023 9:58 pm

    I absolutely cannot read at the beach. I have tried. It sounds wonderful, but just too bright for me. So, I have moved to the mountains (foothills). 😉 Maybe someday I’ll give Moby Dick another go. I got about 1/4 into it a long time ago. I’ve enjoyed Melville’s stories quite a bit over the years. I used to have a Bartleby bookbag that said “I would prefer not to” that I carried back and forth to school much to my principal’s chagrin. He did not like it, but I liked that he did not like it. 😉

    • January 27, 2023 9:02 am

      I like reading at the beach, but I can read at home and I can only watch waves at the beach so I usually end up watching the waves instead.
      I ran out of the mystery series I kept for reading before bed, so now Moby-Dick is on my bedside table; it’s good in small bits.

  9. January 27, 2023 12:05 pm

    What a good quote – I’m sure I’m going to have that in mind in February when I go to San Diego for a conference.
    I loved reading Moby Dick – I appreciate that Melville has an affinity for alliteration that matches mine 🙂

    • January 27, 2023 1:47 pm

      I especially love the part about “November in my soul.” I think I’ve heard that quoted before!

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