how to catch a whale

Call me a below average reader. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – I decided to read Moby Dick.

I’m still going.

Moby Dick is itself my White Whale. Several times I have taken up the chase and left off after this Leviathan of a book has escaped my grasp. But not this time.  I have the madness of Ahab on me and I’ll pursue that thing to the grave if need be. It’s not that Moby Dick is a bad book, just that when life gets busy it’s not the first way you choose to unwind after a big day. Leaping astride its preposterous bulk is just the beginning. Still, I have discovered the secret: you can read it for a while and then leave it aside for days, weeks, yea verily even a couple of months and return to it and find you haven’t forgotten anything that’s happened.

Because nothing has.

Ah Ryan, you say, why continue? Why struggle, push, strive, beat and drag yourself on? Why not just curl up on your poo brown lounge with Twilight instead? Or wouldn’t it be better (as suggested by a good friend) to just get the audio book and have done in a mere 26 hours whilst stuck in peak hour? That’d make more sense, right?

No, no, NO! A pox on your shiny pop vampires and new fandangled technomological shortcuts!

For this book is pure delight. A delight I can’t quite put my finger on. The language itself is encrusted with barnacles and sea salt, chilled with the north Atlantic air, but then it’s more than that. Then there’s my till just now unsettling identification with Ishmael, whose itching discontent and simple joy at immersing himself into the world is one with my own. But go on. The book is a journey, a  voyage, is itself an epic. The Pequod’s ponderous pursuit of the white whale across the oceans can’t be rushed. It has to be savoured. Sat with. There’s a depth and breadth to this book’s vision that entices and yet eludes me, like the whale itself eludes Ahab. It appears simple but isn’t. Quickly jet across this ocean to your destination and you’ll miss the richness of the world beneath the surface. And no, kind hearted spoiler, I don’t want to be told.

In its slowness, in its breadth, in its misleading simplicity and its slow pursuit of an elusive object always somewhere out of reach there’s something of life here and I’m loving it. And so today on this 161st anniversary of Melville’s classic I will pick up the Leviathan again and drink it in.

With patience, with determination and maybe just a hint of obsession. That’s how you catch a whale.


dickens’ ‘a christmas carol’

For our first ever ‘Books I’ve read’ we’re going to look at something relatively light and fitting for the season – ‘A Christmas Carol’. We’ve all grown up with this story. However, for all the cartoon, film and Muppets adaptations, I’ve never actually read it, as Dickens wrote it. Until now. And I heartily suggest you do the same.

This little book is pure delight. I’m relatively new to Dickens, having only read ‘Great Expectations’ before, earlier this year (and loved it), but already can see in him a master of his craft, able to write beautifully both in larger, preponderous works and in this smaller, lighter fiction. I sometimes feel that some of these classic authors write profound and weighty tomes without the skill to actually maintain control over their prose, ending up with sprawling, absolutely painful tomes that might benefit the human race if anyone could actually get through them (I’m looking at you, Hugo). But Dickens, he could tell a story, and across a range of forms. It’s well worth visiting Dickens’ original even though you more or less know the story for his prose alone. He paints a scene or character with incredible vividness and colour, and yet in doing so never feels forced or overwrought as so many writers do such as his depiction of a cold, dark, foggy London Christmas Eve, the coldly haunting manifestation of Marley’s ghost or this description of Ebenezer Scrooge:

Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out a generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.

Apart from the prose, there’s nothing like a good ghost story, and this one’s a classic. When the Ghost of Christmas Past forces Scrooge to look on the path he chose in youth I found myself uneasy at the thought of what I might find if my childhood was presented to me. Would I weep as well? The Ghost of Christmas yet to come perfectly embodies the shadowy and unknowable fear in which the future is shrouded for us. As a kid I always thought he was the coolest, but now I was most moved by the Ghost of Christmas Present. For in this episode is Dickens’ most direct indictment of his fellow-man and society, whose children are Ignorance and Want, so easily turning a blind eye to the needs of those around them. As a piece of satire Scrooge seems extreme beyond reality (sadly not actually true), and Dickens’ society seems far removed from our own in some respects. But in all our consumerist materialism and waste in the name of lifestyle, in the condemnation of the poor and destitute as ‘surplus population’ not worthy of help by so many living in comfort,the ghost’s criticism still rings true.

Nevertheless Dickens doesn’t bring this little story into the angry attacks of some of his other novels. It combats greed and avarice with a lovely celebration of and invitation into charity, kindness and goodness. The Ghost’s criticism is powerfully conveyed by the touching stories of love and friendship he shows to Scrooge. We are invited to not only see Christmas as a time for love and fellowship, generosity and compassion, but to make every day Christmas Day. As Dickens says in the introductory note of his book: ‘I have endeavoured in this ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea…May it haunt their house pleasantly…’

And it is, Dickens. It is.

i love the book

You get them electronically now. You download them on little tablets; Kindles, ipads and whatever else. And I know that’s not actually a bad thing. I know the time will soon be here to take up the Kindle. It’s cheaper for one thing. When I go away anywhere my luggage is heavy – and more than anything else it’s weighed down with too many books (you can’t simply take away one. One day you want fiction…the next non-fiction…you also have some research to do). It’s been a while since I’ve hiked through the rainforest, but my backpack was always loaded with too many books.  Kindle may save my back.

But I like the book.

When I eventually take up whatever little electronic tablet thing, it’ll have its uses, but I won’t swap one for the other. I’ll never let go of the book. The feel of it in your hands. That fresh paper scent of a new book (there are several, all nice), the sheer tactility of the touching the turning of the page, the vivid imagery of the covers even.

I like the book.

And writing…writing! I type, yes I type. But everything I tap out on this cold, soulless piece of hardware has its genesis in a book, scratching out ink lines, my heart and mind etched in my distinctive and by no means dignified looking scrawl. I simply don’t know what to write when seated at my laptop. The keyboard freezes the flow of thoughts that my brain wants to spill out into the world as if someone turns off the oil heater in the middle of winter and the little uninsulated room I live in turns to ice. But when I’m scratching them out through a ball point between the black lined pages of my notebook everything becomes warm, everything thaws; slowly at first but then the trickle becomes an increasing flow. And that book which contains my words, my recollections, my very self – that is a precious object. I keep it near me. I treasure it.

I love the book.