This weekend I went to a bar in Long Beach with a few friends from the English program. On our way into the Auld Dubliner, I spotted my second cousin (also named Brian) in another bar and text-messaged him to come and meet us at the Dubliner. About an hour later he and some of his friends--nearly all people with whom I'm acquainted--joined us. One of these, a guy that I have not seen in about a year, had two very different reactions to seeing me. The first was expected: he pulled my hair. I had a shaved head the last time we met, so he was not prepared for my disheveled locks. The second reaction came as a bit of a surprise, as he happily slapped me on the back and yelled, "Hey! Call me Ishmael!"
"Call me Ishmael." Is there is a more recognizable opening line in the English language? The occasional literary scholar for whom Moby Dick has slipped through the cracks (yes, they exist) can still identify those three words as the opening salvo of Melville's opus. I'd like to say that anyone who reads--period--is familiar with it. I imagine that this assumed recognition of what we consider to be common knowledge abounds with the potential for disappointment when confronted with those folks that, despite apparent intelligence in other areas, just don't know it.
I have never experienced this profound disappointment, but it is not due to any shortage of folks who haven't read Moby Dick. It has more to do with low expectations, stemming from the fact that I have never actually been surrounded by readers. In fact, sadly, I can't think of one lifelong friend or family member with whom I've ever been able to discuss literature. For me, reading has always been either solitary or pedagogical--if I was not reading on my own, I was learning, teaching, or even evangelizing to a non-reader.
This particularly loud Melville reference at the Auld Dubliner was the result of one of the more interesting "pedagogical" moments, one that I had long forgotten. In April of 2007 I attended the Long Beach Grand Prix with some friends. After a long day of drinking we all piled into a car (with a designated driver, of course) and headed to a restaurant managed by an old friend of mine. He and the owner had opened the place up privately for a party, and once the word got out we continued to drink late into the night. Around 2 am, with the place now empty except for the people we'd come in with (and some women we'd managed to keep interested), I got into a conversation with three or four guys about my plans for graduate school. I had just accepted admission to UCI and was explaining my interest in Hawthorne and Melville when somebody interjected, "Melville! I know that name! What did he write?"
"Moby Dick," I answered, and waited for the inevitable snickers.
"That's right! That was my dad's favorite book. I always wanted to read it, but I don't have the patience."
"You should read it," I told him. "It's a great book."
Somehow this exchange led to me quite drunkenly retelling the entire narrative of Moby Dick to four or five other well-oiled individuals on the patio of a bar. I remember stopping occasionally to tell them that if they were bored or if they wanted me to shut up I wouldn't be offended, but they wanted me to go on. Unaccustomed to people at bars having any interest whatsoever in literature, I delighted in the attention and giddily continued. Whether they were enraptured by the story itself, by my occasional self-interruptions for personal interpretation and historical context, or by my unusual enthusiasm I can't say, but when I was done they seemed to have gained a certain degree of appreciation for a novel whose value to most of them was simply that of providing a slightly dirty pun. Of course, simply telling the story (especially when drunk) is not by any means what we do, but I was just happy that someone seemed interested for once.
Still, I never expected any of those gentlemen to go out and read the book. Yet a few months later I ran into one of my captive audience members who, lo and behold, had read--and thoroughly enjoyed--the story of the white whale. I have no shame in sentimentally admitting that this filled me with pride. Furthermore, I was absolutely tickled to hear this same guy yell out that iconic opening line in a crowded bar over a year later.
Maybe this seems quaint, this thrill at having inspired someone to remember the most famous line from the most famous book of one of America's most famous writers; but to me that's something, and I think that approach will come in handy in my chosen profession. In a way we're guardians of a threatened form, one which will only survive if we can convince society at large (and that includes a world of literate illiterates) that it matters. We're literary evangelists.
So sure, it's just one book. One guy reading one book once a year. That's a start. I suppose that if we're doing anything worthwhile in this business, we're going to have to do it one book at a time anyway.