(Call Me) Robin

by | Nov 30, 2020 | 5 comments

NCTE blogger, Millie Davis, recently invited writers to explore the topic: “Writers Riffing on Why Books Save Lives,” https://ncte.org/blog/2017/11/authors-riffing-books-save-lives/ and this essay is my response.

Enjoy life

Dear Ishmael, 

Let me begin this letter by confessing that I’ve read Moby Dick at least seven times. The first few times, I had to read it as an assignment for school. My education took longer than expected, 23 years if I’m forced to count. If you are thinking that’s absurd, you are correct. I just got stuck in an educational rut and found myself collecting degrees to attach to the end of my name. Call me “Doctor Robin,” if you want. No, actually, please don’t!

Over-schooling only explains the first few times I read this tome on whaling. I’d like the explain why I keep coming back. Moby Dick is considered one of those way-too-long books, like Middlemarch or Finnegan’s Wake. Although considered excellent by those who specialize, let me tell you that I have stayed until the end of cocktail parties, when most of the guests have left, and I’ve heard any number of noted professors admit they actually never read them. These books get labeled classics or great books, often, I imagine, by old dudes with beards and elbow patch jackets. But the world has changed, and I must admit I’m usually drawn to the new and the now, the recent Booker Prize nominees or the latest from Wave Books. But there’s an ineffable something about Moby Dick that always draws me back.

I’m thinking of you lately, Ishmael, because these pandemic days are hard and long, even though I’ve avoided this virus so far. The isolation from friends and loved ones takes its toll. The suffering and inequity and unpredictability causes me pain and sadness each day. In an early passage in the novel, you explain why to are drawn to go to sea as a sailor: 

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Today has definitely been one of those “damp, drizzly November in my soul” days, Ishmael. I feel you. And today is not my first of such days. But instead of going on a whaling voyage, I guess I’ve taken to reading long books instead.

I suppose that the loneliness of the quarantine has operated on each of us differently. Nine long months of limited interaction with other people has changed my reading habits. I hit my annual reading challenge goal on Goodreads months ago, and I had to ask myself, now what?

Lately I read mostly by listening to audiobooks, perhaps because of the comfort of being read to by another human, even if it is transmitted to me by phone. The experience of hearing a story in another person’s voice feels warm and personal. It reminds me childhood or the way we read to our children at bedtime. Reading aloud to one another person is a powerful and authentically human ritual.  It’s comforting. For me, it suggests an innocent kind of love. 

The other thing I’ve done is that I’ve returned to reading long novels, which is, perhaps, akin to taking a voyage. I am drawn to strong narrators like you with an understanding of sadness that comes from experience. You and your dreamy afternoons, Ishmael, you, “lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie,” as you stand at the highest point on the ship watching for whales, you touch me deeply, I have to admit. At this very particular moment, because I am in between jobs, in between lives, I can understand the appeal of the signing up for the regimented tour of duty on board a ship. I relate to you, Ishmael, as a fellow yearner. 

The other thing I’ve done is that I’ve returned to reading long novels, which is, perhaps, akin to taking a voyage. I am drawn to strong narrators like you with an understanding of sadness that comes from experience. You and your dreamy afternoons, Ishmael, you, “lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie,” as you stand at the highest point on the ship watching for whales, you touch me deeply, I have to admit. At this very particular moment, because I am in between jobs, in between lives, I can understand the appeal of the signing up for the regimented tour of duty on board a ship. I relate to you, Ishmael, as a fellow yearner.

The yearning, finally, has nothing to do with whales, does it? That is the quest of Ahab in Moby Dick and yet that is not the point at all. Ahab did not understand that, but you did, Ishmael. You understood that the community of men working together was the highest achievement possible on the Pequod. And as you looked out onto the watery world surrounding you, your imagination took over. That was the real story.

The yearning, finally, has nothing to do with whales, does it? That is the quest of Ahab in Moby Dick and yet that is not the point at all. Ahab did not understand that, but you did, Ishmael. You understood that the community of men working together was the highest achievement possible on the Pequod. And as you looked out onto the watery world surrounding you, your imagination took over. That was the real story.

I, too, find solace in water. Doesn’t almost everyone? For me the hour-long drive to Galveston Island is always time spent well. When my kids were young, I’d take them to play in the sand; there are no temper tantrums on the beach. Now that they are older, I take my dog and my self in search of that “enchanted mood,” and so far it has never failed me.

Your friend at the Mast-Head,

(Call me) Robin

You may read Millie Davis’ expansion of her November 25th post here

We welcome additional “riffing” on her piece. Have any books (or all books) saved your life or the life of someone you know? Inspire / challenge us with your story of how and why. 

more RIFFs to enjoy

<a href="https://writersatlarge.com/riff/author/robin-reagler/" target="_self">Robin Reagler</a>

Robin Reagler

Robin Reagler is the author of Into The The (forthcoming 2021); Teeth & Teeth, winner of the Charlotte Mew Prize selected by Natalie Diaz; and Dear Red Airplane. She served as Executive Director of Writers in the Schools (WITS) for 22 years. She recently chaired the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Board of Trustees and is Vice-Chair of LitNet, the Literary Network.

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