Book Shame
(as published in Hunger Mountain)

My first job at age 15 was at my uncle’s retail store, Moby Dick Marine Specialties, on the cobblestone streets of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Dubbed “The Whaling City,” New Bedford is a complicated mix of a place next door to my hometown of Dartmouth. Today its downtown is a national historic park, but when I was a kid it’s where I went to work, catering to tourists who wanted to buy sharks’ teeth, brass lamps, and woven Nantucket baskets. A block away is The Whaling Museum, where my friends and I were disruptive during class trips. Further down is the Seamen’s Bethel—an early 19th century building with a name that makes any middle schooler giggle and where at least one of my cousins got married.

You can’t step far in New Bedford without the past smacking you in the face—whaling captains’ grand homes topped with widow’s walks, historical markers noting this important date or another. I’ve eaten at the now-defunct Call Me Ishmael’s. I’ve ridden on boats through New Bedford harbor, past the breakwater, through Buzzard’s Bay to Cuttyhunk and the other Elizabeth Islands. The sea is an old friend. New Bedford itself is ingrained in me in a way I cannot explain. My childhood home had scrimshawed whale’s teeth and a harpoon as decoration. Yet never have I read beyond the first sentence of Herman Melville’s tome that gave my uncle’s shop its name.

First blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Dartmouth Public Schools. The AP English students had to read Moby Dick, but the rest of us slugs only had to watch the movie. (And even that I don’t remember—maybe I skipped school or stayed home sick that day.) Part of me thinks it’s shameful that the powers that be didn’t even try to get us to read the book. A larger part of me thanks them.

Let’s face it: Moby Dick is long. Rumor has it, there are footnotes. I’m a lazy reader, and long passages of description bore me. Grapes of Wrath nearly killed the teen-aged me. I cursed, moaned, and foot-stomped my way through the Joads’ cross-country trek, and to this day no one can convince me that book isn’t as dry as the Dust Bowl. Imagine if I’d tried to make it through Melville’s ocean, hundreds of pages longer. I’d have drowned for sure. Or, more likely, turned to the teacher-forbidden, black-and-yellow savior that, if discovered, would have earned me a bad grade and a scowl.

It’s strange that I grew up around so much history yet remain so ignorant of my town’s past. For instance, I traveled Slocum Road—a main Dartmouth thoroughfare—nearly every day of my life without knowing (or wondering) a thing about its namesake, Joshua Slocum. Not until two years ago did my curiosity pique, when I stumbled upon a Smithsonian exhibit that featured Dartmouth and New Bedford and displayed Slocum’s manuscript for Sailing Alone Around the World.

Now that book sits alongside a used paperback version of Moby Dick, awaiting my attention. I’m weighing whether or not to pack the two into the subset of belongings coming with me on a year’s adventure to the Pacific Northwest. It seems fitting to bring them, don’t you think?

As much as I love books, reading poses difficulties for me, in part because I am easily bored and distracted. But once I begin a book, I hate to stop, even if it’s awful, even if I struggle with the language, subject matter, or story line. I like to see a narrative through to the end. If I don’t, or can’t, it feels like a failure on my part, not the author’s.

I’ve still not tackled Moby Dick and I’m not sure if I should try. I’ve gone this long without reading it; will my life change appreciably if I check it off of my list?

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