On Not Reading Moby Dick

Kimberley Long is a former volunteer at The Reader Organisation. In this installment of her Japanese Diary she discovers that a book of the world doesn’t measure up to the world itself.

‘Call me Ishmael’. I read the first line of Moby Dick as I packed it into my carry-on luggage. It’s one of those iconic first lines, like the opening to Rebecca. It jumps from the page and drags you inside. The character instructs us to call him Ishmael, but we know nothing about him; it may not even be a name he has used until that moment. And for me not knowing is the way it had to remain. Despite all my excitement at reading this marvelous-looking book, real life intervened. When it comes to Moby Dick, I have nothing to review.

The reason for this is that every May in Japan several public holidays fall together to create the wondrous, and fantastically named, Golden Week. It’s the perfect opportunity to travel while taking the minimum of paid leave. A mass exodus of language teachers ensues as we spread far and wide to explore what everything that the right hand side of the world map has to offer. I was off to spend my Golden Week holiday as a slightly prolonged Golden Fortnight in Australia. While I had every intention of coming back with tales of my own adventure against the backdrop of Melville’s masterpiece, I was having too much fun to get around to reading it.

I had a lot of travel time between planes and coach journeys, and thought the book would be there to help me pass these tedious hours. But in the end I spent my journeys people watching, and spying on what everyone else was reading. It seems that short but powerful reads are the mainstay of the gap year travellers, with sightings of various Orwells and Kerouac’s On the Road while taking the tram around Melbourne. Even the ditzy blonde I was sharing my hostel dorm with one night in Sydney preferred an evening in with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to coming out partying with me and some university friends. All of this analysis of other people’s reading wasn’t getting me on the hunt of that elusive whale though.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read it. I searched for time in Sydney but was distracted by the pure white sails of the opera house and the intrepid types scaling the Harbour Bridge. Three jam packed days of sightseeing in Melbourne saw encounters with wombats, koalas, and even a particularly aggressive kangaroo that decided to grab my arm and not let go. But no sightings of any whales, physical or otherwise. Travelling alone is a surprisingly social experience. It’s almost impossible to get a moment to yourself as there’s always someone who wants you to go drink, eat, or play pool. Saying you want a quiet night in with a good book is rarely an option.

So the days passed and I still hadn’t done any reading. I did once pull the book from my bag somewhere on a twelve hour journey between Sydney and Melbourne, but I couldn’t bring myself to read it. Compared with watching the scenery whiz past in a blur of golden earth and bush contrasted against cloudless blue skies, hiding from my adventure inside the foxed pages of a 150 year-old novel seemed absurd.

I suppose in some ways this is the absolute antithesis of a review, but I think it’s really just a reminder of what we sometimes forget: that as great an experience as reading is, the adventure around you is often more compelling than what’s happening on the page. The book is currently lying unread with a pile of paper and my open, overflowing diary stacked on top of it next to my laptop. The manga sticker I was using for a bookmark is still jutting out of the top of the first page. And the man called Ishmael still has his story to tell.

By Kimberley Long

[Editor’s Note: If you now feel you would really quite like to read about Moby Dick, click here to read an excitable recommendation that was published in The Reader magazine, issue 15, back in 2004. Buy back issues, single copies, and subscriptions to the magazine here.]

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