Cumulus Partners

19. September 2010 04:39

Meditations on Yom Kippur and Herman Melville

19. September 2010 04:39 by mike barlow | 2 Comments

Like many of my fellow Hebrews, I spent yesterday fasting, meditating and reflecting. I read parts of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. I also began re-reading "Moby-Dick" for the first time in many years. Somehow it seemed a perfect fit for Yom Kippur. It is powerful and beyond simple understanding. It is full of wonder, awe, amazement, and mystery.

The writer part of me was gratified (if that's the right word) to discover that "Moby-Dick" is constructed on a general framework that is familiar to traditional newspaper journalists: Introduce a character, tell a little story about him, and then start shoveling in background material. Repeat the process until deadline. I use a roughly similar framework to write the "narrative non-fiction/long-form journalism" business books that pay my mortgage.

When I was younger, I did not appreciate the sacred friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. When I read the book as a teen, I figured, "Well, everyone has friends. What's the big deal?" I also failed to notice the care with which Melville's builds our knowledge of Queequeg. Every word describing Queequeg's appearance and actions is so nicely chosen. He springs to life on the pages; you feel as though you have found a friend.

Back in 1970, I had an equally shallow take on Captain Ahab: As a young reader, I didn't find him frightening; he was merely the lead actor in cast of "colorful" characters. Now he is truly terrifying to me -- a force of nature, out of control, and deadly.

If you had asked me 40 years ago if "Moby-Dick" was a plot-driven book or a character-driven book, I would have said the former. Now I can see that Melville is the equal of Shakespeare in the character-development department. Ishmael, Queequeg, Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask -- I'd put them up against the likes of Macbeth, Othello, Iago, Falstaff and Richard III any day.

Blessings for the new year, no matter which stars or constellations you follow!