“I read the whole thing!”

I teach an on-line class on pieces of great literature, big and small, and get student reactions along the way.  When they get to Moby Dick, about half of them express frustration about having to ‘get through it all,” or delight at “having got through it” — even as I stress that the particular chapters and even a line or so within one of them, can be richer than imagined, and quite enough to ponder, apart from ‘getting through it all.’

I got to thinking: It’s funny — we ask ourselves if we’ve ‘read the whole thing’ when someone inquiries about the opinion piece in the NYTimes, and maybe we answer to a friend “I didn’t read the whole thing.” And the question and answer make sense.  But with Moby Dick or Wittgenstein’s Investigations, it makes no sense to ask, or answer, the question “Did you read the whole thing?”– as if the point is to have your eyes move over every word and check it off as “read” (and look ahead to the pile of words in the “not read” bin).

I guess if it’s a museum exhibition, the analogy would be seeing every painting in every room. But does a glance count as “seeing.”  And if it’s good art is “seeing” ever done”? Is ‘seeing’ an ‘accomplishment’ verb?  Maybe it’s an ‘endless activity’ verb.

What if reading Moby Dick is more like reading all of a city, or all of Beethoven (or Dylan)? Then you introduce the idea of degrees of reading — you can glance at a lot of words, and not read one, and really ponder a phrase endlessly and feel it is still ‘unread.’ You can read it many times and still want to return for more, because there’s more there.

I go to parts of Moby Dick over and over, over the years, the way I’d go to parts of a city over and over — never getting enough. And there are some streets of the city I glance at and know I’m uninterested. If it’s an opinion piece in the NYTimes, you can ask, “did you read it and understand it.” But with Moby Dick (like great theater or a city or a stretch of the high sierra) you can go back again and again, even fall sleep, but without any sense of disappointment, because there’s no meaning to the idea of ‘reading it all’ (seeing it all, hearing it all, knowing it all, understanding it all, loving it all) — once and for all.  There’s no check off list. Any minute  can satisfy.  Why look ahead or behind to what’s done or undone?