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If you borrow this book, you have to return it: Seth Landman.

February 15, 2011 \pm\28 12:00 pm

[For this series, I’ve asked many wondrous writers to reflect on an individual copy of a book that is very important to them. Writers and publishers have varied and often impassioned relationships to their analog books, as actual books are still arguably the “realest” physical manifestation of their poetic pursuits. I think that as the Kindle and other digital representations of text continue their upward spiral, it’s important to reflect on books as the uniquely funky-smelling, emotion-provoking, paper-cutting, dust/coffee/spaghetti sauce-collecting artifacts that they are! Check back next week for more top picks!]
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Seth Landman edits Invisible Ear, a journal and a chapbook series, and is a member of the Agnes Fox Press collective. He also writes about fantasy basketball on the internet. At age 8, Landman won the award for “Most Desire” at basketball camp, a fact that has become no less pathetic and depressing in the intervening years.

I did not stagger into the world ready to love Moby Dick. Suffice it to say I read Moby Dick because I felt guilty about lying that I had already read it. It seemed to be a book I should read, but read it I could not.

So what? So, eventually, I read it on a family vacation to Isle au Haut off the coast of Maine, looking out over the Penobscot Bay. My edition of the book – the 1992 Modern Library hardcover (illustrated with Rockwell Kent’s famous woodcuts) – has been expanding in my mind ever since.[1] I will eschew here any sort of description of these illustrations, except to say that they are truly weird and twisted; by some miracle, they do not get in the way of the pictures my brain makes while I read.

And “read” is certainly a word that belongs in the present tense. I must, in part, prefer my dense, grey hardcover (I lost the dust jacket years ago) because I have spent so much time holding it.[2] I read Moby Dick often. I think I probably read it every time I learn something new. Like all great books, Moby Dick is endless. Like Heraclitus’s river, it is altered every time just as I am altered.

My copy contains strange hieroglyphs, too; for instance, the remains of a phone number written in pencil by my friend Jake while he was borrowing it, or the marginalia and underlining of the person I was 10 years ago.[3] I’ve stopped writing in it now, but it continues to be marked by my own history. I think about Moby Dick every day, more than I think about any person, including the people I love most. That history of thought – of tying each and every experience of my life to some sentence, paragraph, or unutterable sense gifted to me by Melville – is inextricably tied to the physical book itself.

That is to say, my marginalia has become internalized. I have a habit in times of boredom or great distress of flipping through the pages. I spend a lot of time on page 522, for example, where I read the final sentence of chapter LXXXI, in which Ishmael reminds us of the futility of certain, impossible chases: “Oh! many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend.” [4] That line is important to me; I say it sometimes in strange company just to see whether anyone might be initiated.

I have a feeling sometimes that I am part of Moby Dick. Certainly, it has become an inextricable member of the constellation of which I am made. Somewhere between the complete and utter loneliness of Ahab’s notion that “All visible objects…are but as pasteboard masks” and Ishmael’s desire that we all should “squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness” I feel my antenna tingling with the recognition of its own true philosophy.

The physical book is falling apart. I have had to re-glue the Etymology, the Extracts, and the first few chapters. More sections will detach themselves as the years go on, but I will continue fixing them, because the book itself seems to be some sort of evidence that there are objects in the world able to communicate with me on a spiritual level.

While Melville was writing Moby Dick (and immediately after), he wrote a series of letters to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne.[5] In the letters, Melville confesses a profound love for Hawthorne, going so far as to suggest that there is a “divine magnet” connecting them. We do not have Hawthorne’s responses, though, and often I find myself wishing for them, as though I were Melville. We send out our little signals into the universe and hope for them to come back in one way or another. Like a great, living friend, my copy of Moby Dick sends my moods and considerations back to me that I might feel a little understood.


[1] For example, I do not like John Huston’s 1956 film adaptation chiefly, I think, because I have grown attached to Kent’s peculiar visions of Melville’s bizarre cast of characters.

[2] I purchased the paperback edition a few years ago when I was participating in a Moby Dick reading group in Northampton, Massachusetts. I read it and promptly gave it away to go back to my beat-up hardcover.

[3] I now find it particularly wonderful that, at 18 years of age, I thought it extremely important to underline the phrase “mystical vibration.” Would I have the chutzpah to underline that phrase now, as a sophisticated man of nearly 29? Probably not.

[4] The Pequod Meets the Virgin. In this chapter, the Pequod communicates with “the ship Jungfrau, Derick De Deer, master, of Bremen.” At the end of the chapter, Derick and the Jungfrau set off in the night under the mistaken belief they have seen the spout of a sperm whale; in fact, they are after the “uncapturable” fin-back.

[5] In case you didn’t know, Moby Dick is dedicated to Hawthorne. The dedication reads: “In token of my admiration for his genius this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

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6 Comments
  1. Dara Wier permalink
    February 16, 2011 \pm\28 10:26 pm 10:26 pm

    Seth,

    You are in that book. I saw you there. Before I ever met you. And then when I met you I recognized you.

    Some of us here in Western Massachusetts have just been reading Hawthorne’s little tiny book about his days with his son and coincidence galore, meeting Melville.

    Thanks for writing this.

    xo

    Dara

    • Seth Landman permalink
      February 16, 2011 \pm\28 11:47 pm 11:47 pm

      Thanks, Dara! I love that Julian and Little Bunny book. The best thing is that he calls the kid “The Old Gentleman.” Also great is when Hawthorne confesses to having smoked cigars with Melville. See you this weekend!

  2. February 17, 2011 \pm\28 4:22 pm 4:22 pm

    This makes me want to read Moby Dick! Which is shocking. For years I’ve been convinced that I wouldn’t like it one bit, so long ago I decided to not even try reading it. But now, after reading your post, I want to read it. I can’t wait to read it! So thank you.

  3. nancy schiff-slater permalink
    February 22, 2011 \pm\28 1:48 pm 1:48 pm

    love your piece; love you. you’ve inspired me so much i’m thinking about reading it again. thank you.

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