Yiyun Li | Herman Melville

#APStogether February 3, 2022

Read Herman Melville's Moby-Dick with Yiyun Li in the spring edition of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs, free and open to all. Starting March 18, you can read Yiyun's daily posts, and comments from our fellow readers, on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. And join us for a virtual discussion at the end of the book club, on April 20—register here.

I have been reading Moby-Dick for as long as I have been reading War and Peace, and they have each anchored me for six months in the past many years. I cannot explain my obsession with the two books, except that they become part of the rhythm of my reading and writing, which is also the rhythm of living. This March 18, on the two-year anniversary of the commencement of our first Tolstoy Together experience, I invite you to read Moby-Dick with me, in thirty days, one month out of a year: together we can make that a special month.

Yiyun Li is the author of the novel Where Reasons End, which received the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award; the essay collection Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (both Random House); and Tolstoy Together (A Public Space Books). Her fifth novel, The Book of Goose, will be published this fall by FSG. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, and Windham-Campbell Prize, among other honors. A contributing editor to A Public Space, she teaches at Princeton University.

Reading Schedule:
March 18 | Day 1: chapter 1-3
March 19 | Day 2: chapter 4-8
March 20 | Day 3: chapter 9-12
March 21 | Day 4: chapter 13-16
March 22 | Day 5: chapter 17-21
March 23 | Day 6: chapter 22-27
March 24 | Day 7: chapter 28-32
March 25 | Day 8: chapter 33-35
March 26 | Day 9: chapter 36-41
March 27 | Day 10: chapter 42-45
March 28 | Day 11: chapter 46-49
March 29 | Day 12: chapter 50-53
March 30 | Day 13: chapter 54-55
March 31 | Day 14: chapter 56-61
April 1 | Day 15: chapter 62-67
April 2 | Catch-Up Day
April 3 | Catch-Up Day
April 4 | Day 16: chapter 68-72
April 5 | Day 17: chapter 73-77
April 6 | Day 18: chapter 78-81
April 7 | Day 19: chapter 82-86
April 8 | Day 20: chapter 87-88
April 9 | Day 21: chapter 89-93
April 10 | Day 22: chapter 94-98
April 11 | Day 23: chapter 99-102
April 12 | Day 24: chapter 103-107
April 13 | Day 25: chapter 108-112
April 14 | Day 26: chapter 113-119
April 15 | Day 27: chapter 120-126
April 16 | Day 28: chapter 127-131
April 17 | Day 29: chapter 132-133
April 18 | Day 30: chapter 134-epilogue

April 20, 7:30 p.m. ET: A virtual discussion of Moby-Dick with Yiyun Li on Zoom.

Day 1 | March 18
Chapters 1-3

Call me Melville’s reader. Some time ago–after finishing my annual reading of Moby-Dick and already missing the watery world–I thought I would take on a new way of reading, copying out Moby-Dick by hand–the epitome of slow reading and savoring every word.

“Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage…” If fates are but stage managers, who has written the script? God himself must be the sole creator and the only audience.

“Call me Ishmael” gave birth to the first sentence of Housekeeping: “My name is Ruth.” My copy of Moby-Dick still has notes from Marilynne Robinson’s lecture. In the margin of chapter 3: “Education of Ishmael.” “Life is a work of consciousness.”

Day 2 | March 19
Chapters 4-8

“Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.” Brave: what a strange and unforgettable adjective.

“What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to know upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave.” Placelessly: what an astonishing adverb.

“The man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.” Yes! Also: methinks those insisting Moby-Dick is but a boring whaling tale are oysters mistaking the thick water for the thinnest air.

Day 3 | March 20
Chapters 9-12

Father Mapple “offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.” I often wonder if this image led to this phrase in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: “the lightless, aireless water below.”

“Content with his own companionship; always equal to himself.” “To be true philosophers, we mortals should not be conscious of so living and so striving.” Queequeg, early in the novel, already sets such a high standard for us mortals.

“Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.” Ishmael, embodying Montaigne’s belief: “To philosophize is to learn to die.”

Day 4 | March 21
Chapters 13-16

“Queequeg, for his own private reasons, preferred his own harpoon.” Just as a violinist carries his own violin, a sculptor his own tools, Queequeg is a true professional of the art of whaling. (Though Ishmael, the amateur, is the better storyteller.)

In sandy Nantucket: “one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie.” Blessed are the souls for whom quantity is secondary. Or, as the Buddha said: one flower, one world; one leaf, one bodhi.

“For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” The affinity between Ishmael and Eastern philosophy: these lines could easily come from Dream of the Red Chamber.

Day 5 | March 22
Chapters 17-21

“Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling.” Ishmael’s thought reminds me of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books, with notes spanning decades. I would read a similar book of thoughts, observations, and memoranda by Ishmael.

“Now and then he stooped to pick up a patch, or save an end of the tarred twine, which otherwise might have been wasted.” I love that Moby-Dick offers details about the microeconomics and macroeconomics of the whaling industry.

The multitude of things needed for a whaling ship: “a three-years’ housekeeping upon the wide ocean.” I often wonder if that sentence was why Marilynne Robinson named her novel Housekeeping.

Day 6 | March 23
Chapters 22-27

Bildad and Peleg, sending Pequod off with emotion and stoicism, are like men leading a funeral procession. On any given day someone is born and someone dies. This funeral for Pequod and its crew, foreshadowing their demise, happens on Christmas.

“Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.” Fate is rarely willing to meet a reader’s expectations: Bulkington’s potential to be a major character is gone.

The two chapters of “Knights and Squires” read like a collection of obituaries: in eight short pages we meet many of Pequod’s crew, each with his own biography, who will all be buried underwater.

Day 7 | March 24
Chapters 28-32

28 chapters in—one fifth into the novel—we finally get to meet Ahab, the “supreme lord and dictator” of the Pequod, and the chapter ends with an image of the thunder-cloven old oak sending off green shoots, resonating with Andrei’s revival in War and Peace.

“For a Khan of the pank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.” One would think no other character could bear the name Ahab. Then I encountered, in E. F Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books, a servant comically and unfittingly named Ahab.

“Celology” is one of my favorite chapters, an anchor in facts before we enter “unshored, harborless immensities.” It also reminds me of a zoology exam in college, being given sets of teeth from different fish species to categorize—it was fish forensics!

Day 8 | March 25
Chapters 33-35

“The ringed crown of geographical empire encircles an imperial brain”: the line (and the whole passage) brings to mind the speech of the hollow crown by Richard II.

“Flask, alas! was a butterless man.” “Dough-Boy’s whole life was one continual lip-quiver.” These unforgettable epithets. I would love to introduce a character as someone with a wineless soul, or whose life is a continual sideways glance.

“The Mast-Head” is one gorgeous chapter. Too many good lines to quote. Sometimes I think we readers are mast-head standers, too: some, alert, with the goal to chase and kill the whales; others, dreaming, with elusive thoughts half seen, half felt.

Day 9 | March 26
Chapters 36-41

“...shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” Ahab raves like Lear. However, the comparison of the sob to that of a dying moose, an ancient-looking, giant, solitary animal, may even make Shakespeare jealous.

The miniplay of the crew is like an orgy of ghosts, with humor, cacophony, fatalism masquerading as bravado; then, the prescient voice from Pip: “Who’d go climbing after chestnuts now?” The question, like a lone note on an oboe, always gives me a chill.

“Immortality is but ubiquity in time.” Chapter 41, two-fifths into the novel, we meet Moby Dick, but it’s a chapter about Ahab, too. They are reflections on two sides of a distorting mirror, racing each other in a game aimed at immortality.

Day 10 | March 27
Chapters 42-45

The 3rd paragraph of “The Whiteness of the Whale” is one sentence, with 17 semicolons, and the word “though” appearing 12 times. What an endeavor to lead us to the final sentence: “there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue…”

“...an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet.” “Unhooped oceans” is as fabulous as Puck’s saying: “I'll put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes.” From my incomplete research, the only other writer who has used the adjective “unhooped” is Dickens, in Great Expectations: “Like an unhooped cask upon a pole.”

“[Captain D’Wolf] resides in the village of Dorchester near Boston. I have the honor of being a nephew of his.” So rarely does Ishmael talk about his back story. Here it feels as though he is proving that he, like Moby Dick, is neither fable nor allegory.

Day 11 | March 28
Chapters 46-49

“It seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates.” The moment of lull for Ishmael to philosophize: what joy that he and Queequeg are engaged in a domestic act of weaving.

“The First Lowering” is truly a symphonic chapter. Who conducts? God? Then comes the line: “The whale, merely grazed by the iron, escaped.” The whale is the true conductor of this movement!

Queequeg: “There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness.” Ishmael: “I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest.” This newly wedded, eternally doomed couple!

Day 12 | March 29
Chapters 50-53

“That unnearable spout was cast by one self-same whale; and that whale, Moby Dick.” I love the entire chapter, “The Spirit-spout,” about the soundless siren song of Moby Dick. Especially love that adjective: unnearable.

“The silent ship, as if manned by painted sailors in wax, day after day tore on through all the swift madness and gladness of the demoniac waves.” The ghost ship, sails on into Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, where it becomes an underwater train.

“The English whalers sometimes affect a kind of metropolitan superiority… regarding the long, lean Nantruckter… as a sort of sea-peasant.” The same encounter between the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Some conflicts are as old as Aesop.

Day 13 | March 30
Chapters 54-55

The Town-Ho chapter could be a stand-alone short story. Moby Dick as the executioner of Radney, the tyrannical coward, and the savior of the wronged Steelkilt: justice can be as fable-like, fantastical, and unreal as the white whale.

“No need to travel! The world’s one Lima.” That wise observation echoes Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice."

“The great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.” All that matters most in life must have a space on that list of unpainted and unpaintable subjects.

Day 14 | March 31
Chapters 56-61

“In the soul of every man there lies an insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.” The half known life—how terrifying: what are the horrors of the other half?

“When the painted canvas cover is clapped on the American line-tub, the boat looks as if it were pulling off with a prodigious great wedding-cake to present to the whales.” What an odd image to equate catching and killing a whale to a marriage.

The encounter with the squid, “an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life” is so eerie that it comforts one to think that seen through the squid’s eyes, we, the earthly, rigid, and purposeful humans, must look equally strange.

Day 15 | April 1
Chapters 62-67

Some chapters for April Fool’s Day! They remind me of a common complaint that this or that book is not for the fainthearted. Really, one wants to ask, has great literature ever been written to cater the fainthearted?

“Yet now that the creature was dead, some vague dissatisfaction, or impatience, or despair, seemed working in him.” This is precisely how I often feel after finishing a book. Writing a novel is not that different from chasing a whale.

“Sharks do mostly socially congregate, and most hilariously feast.” A congregation of sharks is terrifying, even more so when they start feasting on one another!

Day 16 | April 4
Chapters 68-72

“Oh, man! Admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it.” Ishmael’s sermon: “hopeless” in his own words. Perhaps all truths contain an element of hopelessness.

“Oh, horrible vulturism of earth! from which not the mightiest whale is free.” The whale’s reality is ours. As Fan Quai, a Han Dynasty general known for his intrepidity, said, ~190BC: “Others, the cutting board and the meat cleaver; I, the butchered carcass.”

“Nor is the history of fanatics half so striking in respect to the measureless self-deception of the fanatic himself, as his measureless power of deceiving and bedeviling so many others.” A chilling line, with a chilling repetition: “measureless…measureless…”

Day 17 | April 5
Chapters 73-77

Right Whale was so named because it was the “right” whale to hunt—slow moving, and after being killed it floats. All whales should be the wrong whales to hunt; why not rename the Right Whale as the Left Whale, to be left alone?

“Why then do you try to ‘enlarge’ your mind? Subtilize it.” Subtilize it! A worthy life goal. (An aside: children nowadays take enrichment classes. Yet none of my enriching experiences from childhood came from being enriched or enlarged by adults.)

“Doesn’t the devil live for ever; who ever heard that the devil was dead? Did you ever see any parson a wearing mourning for the devil?” Aye, Stubb. God is dead after Nietzsche, and yet no one has come to announce the death of the devil.

Day 18 | April 6
Chapters 78-81

Tashtego stuck in the whale head in a breech position, then rotated by Queequeg to be delivered head first to safety: despite some comments that the novel has but few female characters, there are plenty of housekeeping activities throughout, and now midwifery.

“Has the Sperm Whale ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it.” The Sperm Whale is my favorite Taoist, with an attitude of non-action and a lack of desire for human affairs!

“The Pequod meets the Virgin” is a perfect three-act play: set-up with faux comradeship, confrontation with genuine animosity and competition, and an anticlimax resolution, where the winners get nothing.

Day 19 | April 7
Chapters 82-86

It’s a good day to whale-hunt in ancient Chinese. Zuo Qiuming (~500 BC), a blind historian, compared a big nation that annexed a small nation to a whale. Erya, the first surviving dictionary (~300 BC), recorded detailed observations about whales.

Hercules “may be deemed a sort of involuntary whaleman; at any rate the whale caught him, if he did not the whale.” Perhaps he can be considered a whaleman, if these days people caught in history or politics consider themselves historians or politicians?

“Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eyes.” Shakespeare’s echo here. In heaven he would be Melville’s worthy friend.

Day 20 | April 8
Chapters 87-88

“There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” Truer words have never been spoken—so rarely does one get a chance to resort to a cliche like this to express one’s awe.

“If you cannot kill them all at once, you must wing them, so that they can be afterwards killed at your leisure.” This optimism is the same one with which I sometimes make a list of stories and novels to be written later at my leisure.

“Amid the tornadoes Atlantic of my being…while ponderous planets of unwanting woe revolved round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.” Setting this as an unreachable goal: to aspire is to already have it.

Day 21 | April 9
Chapters 89-93

“What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?” What dreadful comfort to know that a book, having been written, is a Loose-Fish, which, if read, becomes a Fast-Fish belonging to the reader.

“Man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought.” Flashback to chapter 40. Pip with his presentiment: “Who’d go climbing after chestnuts now? There they go, all cursing, and here I don’t.”

“It will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself.” “The Castaway” ends with Ishmael speaking as a future castaway. Sometimes I cannot help but think: who among us has not been thus abandoned?

Day 22 | April 10
Chapters 94-98

“The Try-Works” is another spectacular chapter—I always wish I could memorize it. “A plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope” sounds an apt description of a writer, certainly, even though we aspire to be the Catskill eagle?

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.” There is a writer named Melville, whose words are worthy of being tattooed on one’s palm, to be held onto for now and all time in the future.

“Away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again.” If I ever wept over written words, I would here, with “young life’s old routine.”

Day 23 | April 11
Chapters 99-102

“The Doubloon” is one Shakespearean experience! Little Pip, reciting Murray’s Grammar, is Prince Hamlet in disguise.

“You books must know your places. You’ll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.” At the risk of sounding too much like an irreverent Stubb, I too say this to the books on my shelves.

I love the list of the outfits in the chapter “The Decanter”: firkin as a unit for butter, anker for gin. There is no measuring unit for a reader’s pleasure savoring these no longer used words.

Day 24 | April 12
Chapters 103-107

“Thus we see how that the spine of even the hugest living things tapers off at last into simple child’s play.” Echo of Hamlet here: “Worms are the emperor of all diets… A fat king and a skinny beggar are just two dishes at the same meal.”

“Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand!...To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” O Ishmael, I will travel anywhere on a ship built with your exclamation marks!

“Both the ancestry and posterity of Grief go further than the ancestry and posterity of Joy.” In this way we humans differentiate ourselves from other species, for whom the memory of day and the memory of night must be equally ephemeral.

Day 25 | April 13
Chapters 108-112

“How dost thou know that some entire, living, thinking thing may not be invisibly and uninterpenetratingly standing precisely where thou now standst… In thy most solitary hours, then, dost thou not fear eavesdroppers?” Ahab speaks eloquently of the ineffable.

“Thou hast outraged, not insulted me, sir; but for that I ask thee not to beware of Starbuck…but let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.” Starbuck echoing Kent, to soon-to-be-blinded Lear: “See better, Lear.”

“Come higher, broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death…Bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death.” The siren song for whalers, including Ishmael.

Day 26 | April 14
Chapters 113-119

“How can’st thou endure without being mad?” Only a mad man—Ahab or Lear—puts his bet on being mad. The saner, calmer, braver, more irreverent and more irrelevant ones among us: we endure.

“All this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.” This sentence brings me back to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and its watery world.

To every Ahab and every Ishmael there is a Starbuck, the pragmatic believer: “Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.”

Day 26 | April 15
Chapters 120-126

“I wonder, Flask, whether the world is anchored anywhere; if she is, she swings with an uncommon long cable, though.” Pequod is a strange ship: she turns everyone on board into a philosopher, a poet, a dramatist, and a prophet.

“Their fear of Ahab was greater than their fear of Fate.” Here’s why tyranny never goes extinct.

With the wailing of the seals, the novel now enters an eerie fever dream, the realm of having an end in the middle and the beginning at the end.

Day 27 | April 16
Chapters 127-131

“Art thou not an arrant, all-grasping, intermeddling, monopolizing, heathenish old scamp…thou art as unprincipled as the gods, and as much of a jack-of-all-trades.” I once had a poster of Shakespearean insults. This one from Ahab could go on there, too.

“How immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts?...Can it be that in some spiritual sense the coffin is, after all, but an immorality-preserver.” Ahab and Ishmael are two philosophers; sometimes they sound alike.

“Alike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to finest duet, and powdered…in the clamped mortar of Ahab’s iron soul.” It feels like the moment before a catastrophic earthquake: no one can be himself any more, all are waiting for the destructive force.

Day 28 | April 17
Chapters 132-133

“From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; no did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.” Tears shed by most characters in most books evaporate. This single drop by Ahab is tear immortal.

“But Ahab’s glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.” “The last, cindered apple” is one of the bleakest phrases ever written.

“Helplessly he yielded to his body’s doom.” An arguable opinion: I have not met a person who is not Ahab in some way.

Day 29 | April 18
Chapters 134-epilogue

“Ah! how they still strove through that infinite blueness to seek out the thing that might destroy them!” Show me one soul who is ever free from that fate, Ishmael!

“It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.” Thus finishes the novel, with a motherless child, and children-less parents.

Every time I finish reading Moby-Dick, I cannot but go back to reread this poem by Robert Herrick:

Bid me to live, and I will live
Bid me to weep, and I will weep
Bid me despair, and I'll despair…

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