Alternatives to Story: Can Moby Dick Rekindle a Love of Literature?

in #story3 months ago

Lots of time to read, right now.

It just feels weird that I've got no interest in stories any more. Sometimes I wonder if my whole "love of books" was just a form of virtue signalling--something I picked up in childhood and haven't been able to toss, like a security blanket. You tell your mother you like to read and suddenly she's buying you books and bragging to her friends how smart you are. Plus it's something you can do quietly, tucked away in your room, where you won't bother her boyfriend.

Then I realize, on some level, I've always had to force myself to read.

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It's a chore, like exercize. I've got to psych myself up. "Just sit down and read 50 pages. You'll feel better for it."

Except that, these days, I don't.

When I force myself to work out, and go for a run, say, I come back with that cozy, loose-limbed endorphin brain wash. If I spend an hour reading I just feel...anxious. Especially if I'm reading fiction with the traditional sort of structure taught in schools: rising action, climax, denoument. The thriller-adventure-mystery-romance sort of story manipulates us, and uses us up, while it sucks time out the window.

This gets to the heart of my discomfort: time already passes quickly enough. It feels like I just paid the mortgage yesterday and here it comes again, and how is this my 23rd anniversary, and how are all my friends' children going to college already?

So much stuff has gone by and I haven't paid proper attention to it.

I think, in some way, I like to feel bored. Time slows down when you're bored. It gives you the space to form memories and, I don't know, exist a little.

It's not just books. Movies and TV dramas are even worse these days. They're all so effectively formulaic, as if their committee-written plots have been run through spreadsheets for emotional analysis, and then re-mixed in service to political agendas and propaganda angles. And everything's a super-hero story. As if we can't be expected to give a shit about a character unless they have a magical power. The stakes are always the entire world and therefore so all ecompassing that they're meaningless.

I can't be alone here. All these alternatives to traditional storytelling keep popping up.

Kids play video games on Youtube to bigger audiences then major network broadcasts. Twitch streams are live-broadcasting by the thousands with frenetic columns of text bubbling up the side. ASMR performers spend hours breathing into microphones and rubbing their fingers over ear-shaped receivers. Long quiet videos are recorded from the bows of ships, or the front of trains.

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It's almost as if we all want a break from things happening. A respite from stories.

Come to think of it, video games themselves are ditching traditional narrative structures. People actually relax by playing long-haul truck driving simulators now. Train simulators. Farming simulators. And then other people watch them play.

I used to get a good deal of reading done on the train.

There's something about being idle-at-speed that relaxed me enough to focus on a few words between naps. Even there, though, I found myself increasingly inclined to just stare out the window and listen to music. (Unless the quiet car was actually quiet, in which case the music was unnecessary. When everyone stops talking, there's something about the sound of a train which is enough.)

Now that we're mostly "working from home," and I've got some empty time around me, I find that I'd rather do just about anything other than take in a story: practice the piano, re-build an old computer, smoke a pipe, rearrange the furniture, go for a long run, clean the house, or watch Limmy play Mud Runner.

None of this really matters. It's all rather silly, not to mention self-indulgent, to go on about it. Who cares if I don't get the same sort of pleasure out of reading that I once did? Should I care if you lose your passion for woodworking or quilting or baking? I've got no shortage of other stuff I want to do, and if anything, the days of this "quarantine" are zipping by even faster than normal as I remember what these things are, and fill my days with them.

But there's still something about reading that I miss.

Even if it doesn't deliver the same feeling of pleasure. It's like a relationship gone sour, when you still have feelings for someone but you know if you see each other again, it'll only lead to disappointment or worse.

So much of my life was formed around the dream of "being a writer" (and therefore a reader) that it's an odd betrayal of my neurochemistry to withhold all feelings of joy from consuming language and replace them with unease and anxiety. As I'm still sitting here with a pen and a stack of paper, it's obvious that I haven't given up entirely. Maybe I just need to remember how to scan a page while sitting still. Maybe 100 pages will do it, or 200. Maybe I can just push through the pain.

Will this quarantine last long enough for that?

The White Whale in the Bedroom

Maybe my distaste for traditional narrative will lead me to create something new. The one book I've been able to read lately, and that in bed, on the margins of sleep, and therefore slowly and gradually over a period of months, with no sense of obligation, is Moby Dick.

I mean, it's pretty good.

I already know how it ends, so I'm not getting manipulated by suspense.

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It's just about as far as you can get from a "regular story" in 19th century literature. (No surprise it sold so poorly during Melville's lifetime.) It gives me flashes and visions of life at sea. There's goofy commentary interspersed with armchair philosophy that manages to be both casual and profound. There's a roster of characters I'd actually like to sit around and talk to. (I'd love to share a pipe with Stubb.) And while it kind-of has a plot, the story is really quite off-to-the-side. "We're all just gonna go whaling for a few years and, yeah, the captain has a boner for this White Whale so if we happen across it at some point, someone's getting fucked. Until then, let's just enjoy life at sea. (Even if it is a little boring.)"

The structure of Moby Dick is more of an anti-plot.

Most authors will tell you that, for a story to be successful, you've got to have a protagonist that wants something.

Here's Ishmael, though. He really couldn't give a shit. He's just looking for a temp job with some boats in it. The mates and harpooners on the ship are pretty laid back too; the cook's almost 100 years old and still hasn't learned to cook a proper whale-steak. What's the point of getting fussed over it now?

The only one on the ship who really, really wants something is Ahab. Needless to say, he's bonkers. Fulfilling his desire winds up being the one thing that gets the Pequod into trouble.

So, not only does Moby Dick have this sort of non-structure that stays clear of all the lovely writing; it also carries a message I relate to:

Don't go around wanting things. You'll just be disappointed.


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I audiobooked Moby Dick over a couple months of long commutes, The etemology chapters were particularly difficult to stay awake through. Hope you guys are doing well.