Tag Archives: classic American Literature

The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

I’ve posted a slightly different version of this piece before, two years ago and some change. It seems appropriate to post this revision now in honor of Toni Morrison, whose fiction has over the course of my adult life completely changed my heart and my brain in immeasurably powerful and positive ways.

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The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

My classroom copy is copiously marked in three or four colors of highlighter and underlined and bracketed and annotated with pen and pencil seven different ways to Sunday. I’ve read and reread and reread this novel perhaps eight or nine times now, but this time I choose a clean, elegant copy over my raggedy-ass classroom copy and it’s like reading it for the first time again. I’m a sucker for fine editions and could not resist this one. I can smell the ink. I can feel the lettering engraved into the spine like braille, or like the text carved into a tombstone, Beloved. And my reading this time is not cluttered by my previous readings, marked up by some earlier version of me who thought he had answers. I complain sometimes about the time I lack to read new work because I am always rereading to teach. And yet, with this gem, I might be happy if it were the only book I could ever read until I died. Every time I read it I find new things to love and new reasons to mourn or hope, and I understand more deeply how tragic our history, how tenacious our ghosts, how all the repair work in our country that needs doing (now more than ever before) springs from this, from this.

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#50: On Trying Again To Read Moby Dick (Again)

moby-dick

I’m not reading again, but instead,
trying again to read for the first time,
the problem being, as I’ve said before,
not one of starting but of finishing,
which, I fear is, but hope is not,
a general pattern in my life.
Call me Ishmael.
What a great first line.
I read it twenty times before moving
to the next sentence.
But this time I make a vow
only to read the passages I’ve marked
from my previous three efforts,
and in this way, I will proceed
through the first 160 pages,
which I have read before,
in record setting time,
being able then to begin my endeavor
where I left off–with a sense of that thing
many of our favorite television shows do for us:
“Previously on The West Wing. . .”

Moving quickly through the etymology
and extracts, and, even though it hurts me,
skipping 1, 2, and 3 entirely, I arrive quickly
at the first passage I marked last time,
Ishmael’s words of wisdom as he climbs into bed with Queequeg:
“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
Amen to that, Brother. And then,
“A good laugh is a mighty good thing. . .and the man
that has anything bountifully laughable about him,
be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for,”
and I immediately remember how funny this novel is,
and how much I thoroughly enjoyed every failed attempt at reading it.

I can’t move too quickly, though, through my review
of the first 35 chapters because I discover I am
completely out of book darts–little post-it notes
I use to mark key passages when I’m reading a fancy edition
in which I am loath to make permanent or pencil marks.
To slow myself down, I think I may write a poem
about every passage I’ve thus far marked, or,
to the chagrin of all my “friends,” turn every key
passage into a facebook post.  Nothing but Moby Dick
from me for the next month or so.  There’s no good
reason it should take me that long to purchase a new
package of book darts–but it is entirely in the realm
of possibility. But I want to know more about Captain Ahab,
who has been in hiding, who finally comes out to give up smoking,
place his peg inside an augured hole for stability,
and tell Stubbs he was “ten times a donkey, and a mule,
and an ass,” and that if he didn’t get out of his sight,
he would “rid the world” of him.
I get out immediately to the local office supply store
and get me some book darts.

I continue my review.  I want inside that big boat.
Starbuck says, “I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale,”
and I say out loud to Starbuck that I am afraid of the whale and of Moby Dick,
Herman Melville’s beautifully intoxicating and totally intimidating novel,
and my fear is what will ultimately push me toward the conclusion.
Quickly moving through Chapter 35, Cetology, Whale Studies 101,
the attempt to answer Ishmael’s question: what is a whale?
He admits and then heroically accepts his failure
at being able to satisfactorily answer the question,
and then comes to this most stirring conclusion:
“God, keep me from ever finishing anything.
This whole book is but a draught–nay, but the draught of a draught.
Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience,” and once again I say Amen,
amen to never finishing anything, amen to a draft of a draft,
amen to the desperate need for time, strength, lots of cash, and patience.
Ishmael, I love you like a brother
and I will finish this novel if it kills me.

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