Books for the Reading: Moby-Dick or, the Whale: Part I

We have weather here in Oklahoma: hot, miserably hot, and dry. In the early morning, as the sun rises, the air glows hazy. Orange-red dirt hangs suspended from the blue sky. The wind blows, the dirt blows, and summer is here to stay.

If it is hot, dry, and far removed from large bodies of water here, it is always sea-damp in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale. Late last year, I commenced reading this enormous tome on the chapter a day plan – no more, no less – a chapter a day. Published in 1851, it was not a critical success. However, by 1920 the winds of taste had shifted, and the book received laudatory notice from critics. The acceptance of the masterpiece came a little late for Herman Melville (1819-1891), who died in relative obscurity.

On reading this book, I envisioned pen-and-ink drawings all done old-style with detail. I also imagined steel or line engravings. The text was old-world, severe, and the stark simplicity of pen and ink or line engravings seemed a match to my mind. Herman Melville created a visual world of whaling with characterization, incredible detail, and background. He himself had put out to sea a number of times and these experiences were used in his writings.

Moby-Dick, however, had a factual basis. The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket by Owen Chase proved to be the inspiration for Moby-Dick. Thomas Farel Heffernan, in Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex (University Press of New England, 1990), presents the Owen Chase narrative and a facsimile of Owen Chase’s title page with the complete title and date of publication. The Owen Chase narrative was published in 1821, thirty years prior to the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale.

A little research revealed that stove is the past tense of stave and stave defined as forcibly caved inward. The ship, the Essex, was rammed by a whale and subsequently sunk while at sea – a tragic fate. Sometimes, truth is outrageous and has been borrowed only to be dressed in fiction’s clothes. Moby-Dick, or the Whale is the fiction and a literary classic.

Summer is here. It’s a good time to read fact that made fiction: What better choice than Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex, a biographical and historical exploration regarding the era of whaling and specifically the fate of the Essex and her crew?

On Curation: Musings by IOBAns Past and Present

Former IOBA President Maria Bustillos contributed What George Orwell, Henry Miller, and John Waters Taught Me About What to Read Next to The New Yorker’s Page Turner book blog:

“There’s been a lot of handwringing lately about “curation” (the original meaning of the word has morphed into something else entirely; maybe we still lack a needed word). It has come to signify sifting through the ever-increasing avalanche of “content” in order to identify the things that are worthiest of our attention, and bringing those things to an interested audience. In fact, there should be no question about this at all; with our time and attention being limited as they are, it’s crucial that we have skilled cultural guides.”

Her musings on curation led IOBA member Lorne Bair to post his own thoughts on the fine distinction between “curation” and “merchandizing” on his Minivan of the Revolution blog. Here’s a brief excerpt, to whet your curiosity:

“I make my living buying and selling rare books, documents, and manuscripts. To the extent that I succeed at these tasks, I eat. I’ve been accused on more than one occasion of plying my trade in a “curatorial” manner — by which is meant, I suppose, that I lavish somewhat more care upon the description and presentation of the items I sell than has, perhaps, been traditional in my business (though I don’t believe this really to be true). It might also mean that I’ve spent much of my career selling things for which there has traditionally been only a very small audience, or no audience at all; and that I’ve succeeded because, through persistence and care, I’ve managed to make that audience bigger (I don’t believe this to be true, either). Or maybe it means that, by choosing a narrow field of knowledge and learning as much as I can about it, I’ve made myself into an acknowledged expert in my specialty (I know this not to be true, not even close).  But whatever is meant, there’s this certainty: when I fail at my primary task, which is to sell something for more than what I paid for it, there’s no consolation in knowing that I did so in a curatorial manner.”

Books for the Reading

Summer – after several weather-waffling weeks of confused warm, cool, rain, hazy, clouds, and clear – is here. The sun blazes mercilessly; the air is dry and warm; the wind blows. No clouds mar the clear azure of the sky. However, for the moment, the earlier mornings remain cool and quite comfortable. The rain will return in autumn.

The summer season is an opportunity to visit museums. There is a local museum, close to hand, with old cattle trail information and exquisite rotating or visiting paintings. This museum is always an exciting treat.

The Museum Book: A Guide to Strange and Wonderful Collections by Jan Mark and illustrated by Richard Holland is a delightful overview of museum history, purpose, and types; there are also a few museums of special note. Each page is filled with informative text and whimsical, busy illustrations.

The author’s narrative is simple and to the point. The word museum is derived from the word muse; the nine Muses were early Greek deities representing the arts. Education, not collection was the purpose of the first museum founded in ancient Alexandria. (Additional research placed the birth of the Musaeum at Alexandria, Egypt around 300 BCE. The Library at Alexandria was considered part of this museum. The library and museum may or may not have perished separately, but by 642 AD under the best case scenario, neither remained.)

In 1677, approximately 2,000 years from the first museum’s birth, a collection was donated to Oxford University of Oxford, United Kingdom with the stipulation that the collection was to be housed separately. The resulting museum, the Ashmolean Museum, was the first museum in the modern sense – a collection of artifacts. It is, according to the book, the oldest existing museum.

Richard Holland’s wonderful accompanying and rather dizzy illustrations in collage form add much in the way of visual information. Dinosaurs, coats of armor, ancient and modern structures, a dodo or rather what we think may be a dodo based on a few remaining dodo fragments, an Egyptian sarcophagus, a train locomotive, earthenware vessels, and much more adorn the pages. Every page is a visual delight.

This summer during the hot, hotter, hottest holidays, visit a museum. In the meantime, learn how museums came to be and why they are special. Soon, I will visit a local museum armed with newly found knowledge regarding these institutions. It’s a great start to the summer season.