What makes me go down reading trails? Sometimes I read a book and that’s it. My next book will be unrelated. But sometimes, I read a book that puts me on a reading trail. It funnels me down, drops me on a path, and gives me clues to follow from book to book. It is then that I want to make curricula for myself replete with field trips. I want to read the fiction, then nonfiction, and/or biography on the topic. I want to research the time period and find out about the zeitgeist and the contemporary culture. I want to know what people generally knew and see what they saw. I want to visit their locations and experience some of what they talked about. I want to inhabit what I’m reading about.
This particular reading journey began in the summer of 2018 with Nathaniel Philbrick’s Second Wind and Moby Dick. I received Second Wind and Away Off Shore, a history of Nantucket by the same author, on June 1. I already had Moby Dick, sitting brand new on a shelf for months.
I had been researching writer’s lives, daily practices, routines, schedules, and research processes. As a form of Resistance, admittedly, but also learning. I looked up Nathaniel Philbrick, Laura Hillenbrand, Hampton Sides, Jon Krakauer, Susan Orlean, Sebastian Junger, David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose and Erik Larson. I fell upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s interview in The Paris Review and became intrigued that Second Wind was not only about his competitive sailing comeback, but also Nantucket itself. (I love a comeback story or any story about anyone doing something at a later age than the youth everyone expects.) I hadn’t really thought much about Nantucket before. I had never been there nor Martha’s Vineyard. I felt a deep dive beckoning.
It took me all summer to read Moby Dick. Laugh-out-loud funny at times, other times amusing, amazing, fascinating, surprising. It’s full of history, science, stories within stories, musings, observations, drama, and weirdness. I had to follow Herman Melville somehow. I also read Florida by Lauren Groff and The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr in that time.
Next I read Why I Read Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea both by Nathaniel Philbrick to get the real story. And then I couldn’t not plan it. I had to go to Nantucket. I had to walk the waterfront streets of New Bedford. I had to sail down the Acushnet River, through Buzzard’s Bay, past Woods Hole and out into the open ocean. Ishmael stopped at Nantucket and left from there but Herman Melville himself bypassed Nantucket and only visited there later. He talked to Captain Pollard of the Essex. I sought out Captain Pollard’s house which is not hard to find. And it’s across the street from the house Melville stayed in when he did visit Nantucket. Then we found first mate Owen Chase’s house which is privately owned and not at all publicized as being affiliated with any known figure in history. We stood across the street at what is a fairly busy intersection for the Town of Nantucket and looked up at the attic where he hoarded food later in life. The backyard is filled with stuff.
In New Bedford, MA, we stood outside of the Seaman’s Bethel (the Whaleman’s Chapel in Moby Dick) and stood on the cobblestones out front just as Melville once did. The church has burned and been rebuilt since he was there but I still get what I call “history feeling” when I am the former presence of someone I’m studying.
Revering people just because they came before. Why do I do that? Is it the notion of continuity that I am drawn to? That we are not something new, despite all of our technologies, stress and drama? If you trace the days back and back, eventually you will reach the time of Herman Melville, of political turmoil that is a hallmark of human life, of human cruelty but also of human wonder and effort. And Melville will be standing there as Harriet Tubman would be standing there. Real, alive, textured with hunger, sadness, a chill, laughter, worry, fear and a smile. That’s what I love about history. We often think of periods of time as being over and completed. We are no longer in the Colonial days of Benjamin Franklin. The Depression is long past, and no one wears poodle skirts and saddle shoes much anymore. Yet these examples are in terms of events and styles. Historical events and styles do come to an end, but time itself never stops. The days of Benjamin Franklin have rolled steadily along, in sunsets and sunrises, leading up to this very moment. The days and nights simply continued.
We pass history every day. We blow by all the echoing footsteps of the people who walked before. Their worries, fears and doubts and their smiles and memories were real. No different than ours.