Description: Vivid and Brief

In both fiction and nonfiction, description paints a picture of characters, land, structures, objects, and the like. Just as dialogue and action need to advance the plot of a novel, so, too, should description — it should provide necessary information. The things being described should be described not only because they advance the plot, but because they somehow affect either the plot or the characters in the story. Or both. And, because description makes the setting and characters more vivid, it draws readers more deeply into the story.

Entertaining the reader is not description’s main purpose — even though some writers treat description in this manner. Some readers thoroughly enjoy long, long passages of description: of the countryside, perhaps, or clothing, or a house. Other readers react impatiently to such long descriptions and often skip ahead to get to the places where something is happening. Perhaps these readers, without consciously realizing it, are reacting to the fact that such long passages contain unnecessary information.

I’m a reader who likes description not for its own sake, but because it somehow helps me understand the characters or plot better, or helps me more sharply feel the setting. I become bored when reading long passages of description: I feel that in such cases the purpose of the description is either to increase the number of pages in the book, to avoid getting to the conflict in the novel, or to show off one’s ability to write compound-complex sentences perhaps, or choose little-known words.

Even writing books written nearly a century ago cautioned that descriptive writing needed to subordinate itself to some purpose. In A Handbook to Literature (1936), the authors state: “Descriptive writing is most successful when its details are carefully selected according to some purpose and to a definite point of view, when its images are concrete and clear, and when it makes discreet use of words of color, sound, and motion.”

In So You Want to Write Marge Piercy and Ira Wood have an entire chapter on description. They start the chapter by saying: “Descriptions are places where writers feeling their oats often let themselves go and readers nod off, put down the book or at their kindest, skip.  No description should be skippable, . . . every one should be functional. If you describe something, make it work.” 

In Chapter 21 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, I give examples of description from Sound Proof, and show the difference between description that serves almost no purpose and description that is functional. Here is a short description as it appears in Chapter 3:

The thermometer on the back stoop read 92°.

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. 

These details are short: selected for a purpose. If the details hadn’t been selected for a purpose, the passage might have read something like this:

The back stoop of the farmhouse was small by comparison to the front porch, a mere five feet by three, but covered for protection from the sun and rain. 

The two concrete steps were well-worn and pitted and the roof newly shingled with what looked like cheap tiles: in keeping with Mary’s penny-pinching.

The large outdoor thermometer, once green but now faded to white, attached to a post with two rusty screws, read 92° — and the day had hardly begun. 

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the faded-gray house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. A long zipper ran lengthwise around the case. A thick nylon strap was attached to each long end of the case by a black plastic D-hook.

The passage above contains way too many details. So many that they don’t appear selected. In fact, they weren’t selected: I just blathered on while writing them, describing everything Frank might see. The original passage, however, focuses on those details that are important to the story: the temperature and the blue nylon case. It bears repeating: in writing description, select the details that are important to the story.

Regarding description, Piercy and Wood also state: “Learn to describe briefly or in snatches, so as not to stop the story in an obvious way.” Remember that readers do not want the story to stop. So learn to describe briefly or in pieces, interspersing the descriptions with action or dialogue or other narrative.

Descriptions should not only be brief, they should be vivid. And it’s specificity that helps make descriptions vivid — the specificity of significant details. Specific details that help paint a vivid picture. And it is up to the writer to think about what those specific details might be, and then to employ them in the written description.

Description is not optional. A writer cannot decide, “I hate description, so I won’t write any.” Description presents to the reader the qualities of a person, a place, an object, even of an action — unless these are presented to the reader, the reader won’t be able to see/imagine what is happening. 

The best book I know of on description is by Rebecca McClanahan. Its title is Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. In it, she lists five qualities of good description:

  • It is carefully worded, using correct terms for things and using precise images.
  • It is sensory, making the reader, see, feel, hear, or smell things.
  • It presents things “as in a state of activity.” That is, good description creates the illusion of movement or motion forward, not an impression of static existence. 
  • It often employs figurative language.
  • Finally, and most importantly, description must be effective. It must do its job of aiding plot, characters, or action.

One of the best pieces of advice McClanahan gives is to avoid adjectives that label or explain — words such as lovely, noteworthy, remarkable. Instead, use adjectives that actually describe (rather than label or explain), such as curly, frayed, or moss-covered. Wherever possible, use concrete nouns such as barn, guitar, or shirt — rather than general nouns such as structure, instrument, or clothing.

Writing ineffective description that’s too general to be interesting, that does not affect a novel’s plot, characters, or action — is way too easy. Writing effective description takes more effort — but learning how to write effective description is not overly difficult. And learning how to do so allows a writer to see things in a new way — an interactive way in which description serves a purpose.

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For more examples of and information on description, read Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Emily Dickinson

The very first Emily Dickinson poem I encountered was in a book of poetry for children. My mother gave it to me when I was in second or third grade. In among poems by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, there was this one:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

Several years later, probably while in junior-high, I encountered Dickinson’s “A bird came down the walk” poem. Here is its first stanza:

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

In both the “nobody” poem and the bird one, Dickinson shows a quirky sense of humor. Her observations are so astute that her poems are like visual memories. We might not remember the exact wording of a line, but we remember the visual image.

As I mentioned above, when I first read Dickinson’s poems I was seven or eight years old. My memory of the words on the page is that the lines of the poem did not contain excessive dashes. It’s possible that children’s book editors removed the dashes — which just about everybody agrees are excessive. And certainly the short lines look better without the dashes, which seem to interrupt the flow of a poem. Critics argue that Dickinson used the dash to emphasize certain words or thoughts; to indicate uncertainty; to indicate a shift in thought; to connect and separate at the same time; to be informal.

For ease of reading, I prefer the poems without all the dashed dashes! Although . . . when I see one of her poems and it contains no dashes at all, I think something is wrong.

Just as the “a bird came down the walk” poem shows Dickinson’s sense of fun, the well-known “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” poem shows she can make us shudder at the feeling of a snake unexpectedly gliding by our feet.

In my late teens and early twenties I began to encounter people of all types, I was struck by how unanchored some of them seemed. It appeared to me that they hopped from one idea to another to another to another, all without examining how or why or what the differences were. And then one day, while reading The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (I was taking a class in Dickinson) I ran across this four-line poem:

I bet with every Wind that blew
Till Nature in chagrin
Employed a Fact to visit me
And scuttle my Balloon —

For years I had that poem hanging on my office wall.

A large percentage of the words Dickinson wrote with are one- or two-syllable words of Anglo-Saxon origin. They are, therefore, words very familiar to us, and their brevity and familiarity help give them power.

But Dickinson had a very large vocabulary that naturally included words of Greek and Latin origin. When she used such words in a poem, juxtaposing them against the Anglo-Saxon words, the Greek or Latinate words seemed more powerful. As an example, consider one of her most highly regarded poems, “Because I could not stop for Death.” The words in the first two lines are short Anglo-Saxon words. The fourth line ends with the word “Immortality,” which came into English from Latin. The contrast between the Anglo Saxon words and the Latinate ones helps the reader feel stronger emotions and, at the same time, think about concepts and beliefs.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the two most important poets of 19th century USA. Whitman was published and self-published in his lifetime: Dickinson had only ten of her poems published. The two are very far apart in style and subject matter, but both have influenced generations of poets. Whitmanesque lines and themes can be seen in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, particularly in “Howl.” Dickinson has influenced poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Howe. And I can’t help but think that her short-lines influence is visible in the “skinny” poems of our era.

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None of the birds in Barbara Gregorich’s poems bite angleworms in half. See Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

The Beguilement of Subplots

Subplots are secondary plots within a novel, less important than the main plot but, in most cases, tied to the main plot.

Sometimes a subplot is strongly related to the main plot, perhaps providing contrast to it or perhaps running parallel to it. In Sound Proof the main plot revolves around Frank Dragovic trying to discover who murdered the fiddler. The subplot involving blackmail notes runs parallel to the main plot and even complicates it.

Some subplots have little relationship to the main plot. Instead, they seem to exist mainly to provide a change of scene or to inject a note of humor. They are diversions from the main story. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the subplot in which Tom attempts to get his friends to whitewash the fence is not related to the main plot.

Of the two types of subplots (related to main plot; outside the main plot), I as a reader strongly prefer the former. It seems to me that such subplots enrich the main plot significantly. They are like an intricately patterned Celtic knot, all entwined. The “outside the main plot” subplots are like two pieces of rope laid side by side. Not that interesting.

Adult novels might have three or four subplots for sure, and perhaps more, depending on the writer’s style and intentions. Too many subplots, though, and their sheer weight and number will detract from the main plot. A novel is a planned dinner with a featured entree — not a smorgasbord with twenty dishes to choose from.

Sometimes an author chooses to make backstory a subplot. I’ve always found this interesting, because there’s a tension between the story from the past and the story from the present, the moving back and forth between them. In She’s on First, the Amanda backstory is a subplot.

Like the main plot, each subplot will have its own story arc. It will contain action; it may occur in a different location; it may occur at a different time; and it may contain different characters. The key here is that a subplot has its own development: it’s a story within a story.

By its very nature a subplot interrupts the main story and thus breaks up the linear narrative. This provides relief from the main plot, giving readers a time to breathe and to consider something else . . . something intriguingly related to the main plot. (Or not.) Well-developed subplots end up increasing reader understanding of the story.

Subplots help develop characterization in a novel, by showing us things from somebody else’s view, or showing us parallel or contrasting events from another time. They help develop theme for much the same reasons.

I’m rewriting a 10,000-word early chapter book and have to stop to think whether it contains any subplots. I realize that, yes, it does contain one subplot which runs parallel to the main plot and then, at the end, intersects with the main plot.

I, along with many other readers, find great satisfaction when a subplot intersects with and becomes part of the main plot. Sometimes this occurs midway through the novel, which means that particular subplot is no longer a subplot but has become part of the main plot. Sometimes, as in my early chapter book, it occurs near the end of the novel, in which case the subplot is a subplot for a longer period of time.

In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler states that each subplot in a story should have at least three “beats.” That is, it should appear at least three times in the story. This gives the subplot weight, helps establish it in the reader’s mind, and helps anchor it to the main plot in one way or another.

When I’m forced, for one reason or another, to outline one of my manuscripts, I type the main plot in black, flush left. I type each subplot in a different color, flush right. That way, I can easily see the relationship of subplots to main plot. Is there a subplot in every chapter? Every other chapter? Are all the subplots lumped together? If so, I need to separate them and space them better throughout the story. Typing up an outline in this manner allows me to better develop the relationship between the main plot and the subplots.

Subplots have been around at least since Shakespeare’s time, indicating that master storytellers know the importance of weaving subplots into their main story. It’s difficult to imagine a novel that doesn’t contain subplots — I think such a work would be so single-minded as to feel thin, no matter the theme. Subplots add richness to the mixture.
 

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Barbara Gregorich begins Sound Proof with the main plot and one of the subplots developing in the first chapter.

Four More Figures of Speech

Expressive language brings literature (and story) to life, no matter what age level it’s written for. Eve Heidi Bine-Stock shows the truth of this in Volume 3 of her three-volume set on writing books for children. Specifically, she examines different figures of speech and gives examples of them from children’s literature.

Zeugma (ZOOG ma) might sound like something you don’t want to encounter in the dark, let alone in a children’s book. But you have encountered it: you just didn’t know its name. Zeugma is a figure of speech in which one word (usually a verb) is coupled to two different nouns in an intentionally humorous way. The example Bine-Stock gives is: “But, luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon,” from Harold and the Purple Crayon.

And for adults, Charles Dickens was using zeugma when he wrote: “She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass.”

Pleonasm (PLEE o nasm) is a figure of speech that, used consciously and with control, can result in intensified language. Used unconsciously and in an uncontrolled manner, it usually results in bad writing.

UnknownWherever you encounter the use of superfluous words, you are encountering pleonasms, which abound in English (and probably in other languages as well). “Tuna fish” and “puppy dog” are examples, as is “see with my own eyes.” In the first, “fish” is superflous; in the second, “dog” is superflous; and in the third “with my own eyes” is superflous, since you can’t see with anybody’s eyes but your own. Yet such pleonasms make those who speak them and even those who read them feel comfortable — something is, for some reason, being emphasized, and that feels good.

But then there’s unintentional use of pleonasm, as in government-speak and bureaucratic documents, which say the same thing in so many ways that one loses a sense of meaning. Even short two-word expressions of pleonasm can be irritating, as in “free gift” and “true fact.”

In an earlier blog on figures of speech, I said that a writer, or even somebody who doesn’t write, can easily use figures of speech without knowing what they are. But a writer, to paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, chooses the best words in the best order, and so, at one time or another, a writer is bound to use one of the figures I’ve talked about. Perhaps accidentally.

This happened to me once when I submitted a poem, “Ridge and Furrow,” for a critique. Toward the end of the first stanza I wrote: “Ridge and furrow, / furrow and ridge roll across the land.” The editor critiquing the poem pointed these lines out, calling them an example of chiasmus (ky AZ mus), which is the repetition of words in first one order, then their opposite order, as in “ridge and furrow, furrow and ridge.”

I have to say that what stayed with me from this critique was not the name of the figure of speech. When I want to know the name of this figure of speech, I have to look it up. What stayed with me was that it can be effective to repeat words in their opposite order now and then.

IMG_2246Just about everybody in the English-speaking world uses litotes (LIE toe teez), and just about nobody is aware of it. Litotes is a form of understatement in which meaning is conveyed by negating a positive, as in:

The ice cream was not bad.

Zack was not sorry the pub was closed.

It’s not rocket science.

Figures of speech are literary devices that intensify language and make it richer. When I rewrite a piece, I rephrase select sentences so that they contain figures of speech — even though I seldom remember the name of the figures of speech I employ.

 

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Barbara Gregorich employed figures of speech in Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

 

Keeper of the Keys: A Delightful Conceit

UnknownA conceit can be an artistic effect or an imaginative notion. In novel-writing a conceit can be thought of as a concept or setup. In Earl Derr Biggers’ last novel, Keeper of the Keys, the conceit works to control the structure of the plot and also to entertain the reader. The conceit (which must have delighted Biggers) is this: five more-or-less ex-husbands of the same diva meet in an isolated Lake Tahoe home in order to answer a question. The diva herself is invited to attend the meeting. The result is murder.

Did ex-husband number one kill her because she had hidden a secret from him for seventeen years? Or was it ex-husband number two, who was both angry and humiliated by her running out on him after a few brief months of marriage. Perhaps it was ex-husband number three, a calculating sort who was actually hiding the information that number one craved.

Ex-husband number four isn’t really an ex, not until the Reno divorce becomes final. Once the diva is murdered, however, the divorce isn’t necessary, and number four hopes he inherits all her wealth. Is he the guilty ex?

Or perhaps it’s husband-to-be number five, himself a talented singer who happens to be fifteen years younger than the diva. And, yes, who has been promised that he will inherit all her houses and all her wealth.

Charlie Chan is hired by Dudley Ward (ex number one) to visit his Lake Tahoe home and attend a dinner party at which the other exes will be present. A dinner party at which Ward will ask each of the ex-husbands whether it’s true that, after she divorced him, Ellen Landini bore a son whom she gave up for adoption. Chan’s job is to detect whether the other exes are telling the truth when answering Ward’s question.

Literary critics have written that of the six Chan novels, Keeper of the Keys is the one in which Biggers does a classic job of putting clues in plain sight, thus allowing readers an opportunity to fit the pieces together and solve the crime. I will say that when I first read this novel, at the age of sixteen, I wasn’t able to put the clues together and solve the mystery. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed the main clue altogether. However, like the murder method in the first Chan novel and like the solution to the fourth Chan novel, the revealing clue in the sixth novel is memorable. In each of my subsequent readings of Keeper of the Keys, I remembered what the clue was and thus who the murderer was. In many ways this book reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel (whose title escapes me) in which the murderer is known to have a physical deformity — which turns out to be something quite unremarkable, but which I remember each time I read the book.

Having come to national fame as a writer of romantic escapade novels (Seven Keys to Baldpate, 1913), Biggers never constructed a plot that didn’t contain a romance. In the first Chan novel the romance was the main thread, the mystery a tad secondary. By the time he wrote his sixth Chan, Biggers clearly relegated the romance to second place. In Keeper of the Keys the romance doesn’t enter until after the murder.

Granlibakken-TMW-112416-3-4As always, Biggers excels at creating setting. His Lake Tahoe and Truckee of the early 1930s are vivid, and Charlie’s delight at experiencing snow for the first time is wonderful to read about.

Perhaps because the setting is cold, Chan is more physically active than in any of the previous novels. He climbs trees, he tracks footprints in the snow, he wrestles with an opponent in the dark, and so on. Though he’s at a disadvantage because of his age and obesity, Chan wins out over his adversaries.

One of Biggers’ greatest accomplishments in his final Chan novel is the criss-cross pattern of character revelation. When we first meet Ellen Landini, we see her as self-centered, selfish, and oblivious to anything other than what she wants at the moment. As Chan observes of her constantly looking for a husband other than the one she currently has: “Ginger grown in one’s own garden is not so pungent.” Landini’s line of character revelation starts out at the bottom: but by the time the book ends, new information moves that line upward.

The murderer’s line of character revelation, on the other hand, starts out at the top, with the character being perceived as congenial, fair, and considerate. But by the book’s end, new information moves that character line downward, toward the bottom. The paths cross in a giant X, with the murderer starting out at the top left of the X and plummeting downward; the victim starting at the bottom left of the X and moving upward.

Had Biggers not died at a relatively young age, he would have gone on to write more Chan novels. Based on his evolution as a mystery writer in just six books, it seems fair to say that he would have come up with even more fascinating conceits, settings, and character development.

 

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In Sound Proof Barbara Gregorich employs a delightful conceit of three different crimes — theft, blackmail, murder — committed at the same music festival.

 

The Great White Whale: Part 2

UnknownIn my most recent re-reading of Moby Dick I was struck by the organization of the book — something I paid scant attention to in previous readings. Specifically, this time around I became aware that Ahab doesn’t enter the book until a quarter of the way through; that the first whale is killed about half way through; and that only the last three chapters contain the face-to-face confrontations between Ahab and the crew on one hand, the great white whale on the other.

This time around it felt to me as if Melville had artfully designed a trawling net, wide at the front end (the first half of the book), tapering to a narrow end where the fish/readers are inevitably led. I realized as I neared the last quarter of the book how I had been led into a more and more focused world (Ahab’s wish to kill Moby Dick). Everything that came before seemed to push toward this end — and there was no escape.

It was an especially gloomy feeling to me to know that for the men on board the Pequod, there was likewise no escape.

During my most recent reading I found to my surprise how many of the symbols I remembered. For example, I remembered that “all men live enveloped in whale lines.” Likewise, we are tied to others through monkey-ropes.

One of my favorite symbols appears in the chapter titled “The Tail,” where Ishmael describes the whale’s tale: “Being horizontal in its position, the Leviathan’s tail acts in a different manner from the tails of all other sea creatures. It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority.”

Moby_Dick_final_chaseAlthough Ahab’s single-minded, unheeding obsession with the great white whale bothered me even the first time I read the book, only in subsequent readings did I come to realize the immorality of Ahab’s actions: not just toward the natural world, but also toward his fellow humans, chief among them his crew, but also fellow sailors he encounters on the high seas.

This inhumanity is highlighted toward the near end of the book, when a man he knows, a fellow captain from Nantucket, begs for his help, for only 48 hours. The captain’s young son has been lost at sea in a whaling boat that didn’t return and can’t be found. Even Stubbs’ heart turns for the better: ‘We must save that boy!” he cries.

But Ahab cold-heartedly refuses and orders the captain off his ship. Ahab is for pursuit of Moby Dick and will let absolutely nothing stand in his way.

As Ahab pursues the White Whale, getting closer and closer, the omens and symbolism increase. During the typhoon, the lightning turns around the Pequod’s compass needle so that it points to the opposite of reality: the needle points East when the ship is sailing West. Ahab himself turns around reality: all he sees is what Moby Dick did to him (bit off his leg). Which is significantly less than what he tried to do to Moby Dick (kill him.)

Once the great white whale is sighted, the book rushes toward its conclusion in a very dramatic way. The last three chapters are titled “The Chase — First Day,” “The Chase — Second Day,” and “The Chase — Third Day.” Each of the first two days, Ahab is warned. The first day, Moby Dick bites the whaling boat in half and Ahab falls into the sea, saved by the Pequod.

e2c146a3fdc967d78893f68a79d8a8ee--penguin-classics-melvilleThe second day Moby Dick breaches, which all see as an act of defiance. Having breached, the great white whale turns and heads for the three crewboats, smashing each of them. The whale then moves on, going its own way.

On the third day Ahab realizes he was “befooled, befooled!” That is, he fooled himself into thinking he was immortal. Even knowing that — even knowing that his crew and ship will perish if he persists — Ahab plunges on. That is when Moby Dick turns on the Pequod, smashing it in half with his majestic forehead. The ship goes down and all but Ishmael perish.

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

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Barbara Gregorich has read Moby Dick four times, siding with the great white whale each time.

The Great White Whale: Part 1

images-3Call me Captivated. That’s how I felt when, at the age of 19, I first read Moby Dick. It was unlike any book I had read — at once intimate but academic, earthy but technical, wide in its subject matter yet focused on Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. I felt in the hands of a writer who was going to take me on an important voyage.

Before I actually read the novel, I had been aware of the story. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I read a Classic Comics version of Moby Dick. The art, the narrative, the dialogue, the way the story moved, the subject matter — I loved all of these things. My parents took my brother and me to see the movie, which came out in 1956 and starred Gregory Peck as Ahab. I don’t remember much about the movie . . . I think I found it long and not as interesting as the Classic Comics version.

Despite the fact that he wrote a long, highly technical, intricate novel, Melville (unlike the authors he was surrounded by such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne) never went to college. “. . . a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” he wrote in Moby Dick.

Before he became a writer, Melville was a whaler. As such, he knew of the 1820 real-life wreck of the whaling ship Essex, sunk by a sperm whale, and he read the first-hand account about that wreck, written by the ship’s first mate, Owen Chase.

One can imagine what the whale must have felt, relentlessly pursued by a ship that wanted to murder it. If whales think, it surely must have thought or felt: “I must strike back.”

And so it did.

I like to think that Melville sided with that whale.

Moby Dick wasn’t much appreciated during Melville’s lifetime. Readers and critics of the 20th century, however, came to understand this vast, awe-inspiring novel. Perhaps one of the first to start what is now called the Melville Revival was British author D.H. Lawrence, who in 1923 published a small but insightful book, Studies in Classic American Literature. This book was one of my reading assignments for an undergraduate American Literature class. I found myself laughing at many of the passages in which Lawrence mocked American obsessions. But beneath his humor and mockery, Lawrence had the greatest respect for Moby Dick. He concluded: “. . . as a revelation of destiny the book is too deep even for sorrow. Profound beyond feeling.”

Just a few years ago I read a small but powerful book, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick, published in 2011. I highly recommend this pithy 21st century look at a masterpiece.

Each time I read Moby Dick, I’m struck by the powerful beauty of the great white whale, “. . . seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.”

It is this natural beauty that Ahab pursues, in order to annihilate it, just as whalers annihilated whales to near extinction.

New Zealand was the first of the twentieth-century whaling nations to give up whaling. That was in 1964. A few years ago I saw the traveling exhibit, “Whales: Giants of the Deep,” presented by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. One of the many things I learned was that there are very rare whales about which little is known. If I recall, they swim very deep and spend much of their time underwater.

Considering how humans have hunted whales, these rare whales may be doing the wise thing. Perhaps they, too, know the story of Moby Dick . . . but from the whale’s point of view.

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Barbara Gregorich has read Moby Dick four times, siding with the great white whale each time.