People ask me what my favorite book is. Like most of you, I have a different answer every time. But more specific questions will get you more specific, and more stable,answers. What is the funniest book I’ve ever read? Moby Dick. Hands down.
Nobody expects this answer.
Big Cat, Little Cat
Reading is Fun… Right?
Why does a book like Moby Dick have a halo around it? Why do people think of it as “the great American novel” but then not bother to actually read it and find out for themselves what maeks it great? I wonder if we do it to ourselves. The snobbery, the stand-offishness, surrounding books like Moby Dick. To me, trying to convince someone that Moby Dick is serious literature is like the stereotype of the masturbators of old claiming that they read Playboy for the articles. “It has serious themes,” you might say. INDIVIDUALISM. HUBRIS. MAN VERSUS GOD. MAN’S PLACE IN AN INCREASINGLY TECHNOLOGICAL WORLD.
I’m being patient with you because you’re obviously new to this. But you know what other books have those themes? Brain Droppings by George Carlin. Napalm and Silly Putty, also by George Carlin. When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops by Henry James. Wait, no. That one’s by Carlin, too. Why would a book being funny mean it doesn’t have serious themes? Everything funny is based on serious themes. I’m going to try to say this without putting too fine a point on it, because I don’t want to give insult: Moby Dick is a queer comic romp, and anyone who says otherwise is insecure in their choices of entertainment. They’ve forgotten that they read because reading is fun. Or they’re ashamed to admit it.
The Court Jester
Quick aside about Carlin. Throughout the ugliness of the Supreme Court attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade (possibly as a prelude to Obergefell v. Hodges, Loving v. Virginia, et al.) It wasn’t to the lyric and stentorious words of the Madisons and Brandeises that we turned for comfort and for assurance that we’re not crazy. It was to George Carlin:
Why is it that when it’s us, it’s an abortion… and when it’s a chicken, it’s an omelette? Are we so much better than chickens?George Carlin
And this gem that he actually opened one of his concerts with.
Why is it that most of the people who are against abortion are people you wouldn’t want to fuck in the first place?Ibid.
Reading is Fun… or Else
A big part of the issue is that we forget how learning works. Most learning–the basics, anyway–take place in childhood. As an adult, we use what we learned. We build upon what we learned. But we rarely undertake to learn something new. How many people take up a language in their thirties? Chess in their forties?
I wonder if this is because the brain loses its plasticity as we get older… or if it’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about it. When you went to school as a kid, you had eight hours or more dedicated to learning. And at least in the beginning, learning was fun. They took pains to put cute pictures on your math and spelling worksheets. And even if they didn’t, you were still with your friends. You could whisper with them during class and shout with them during recess.
When I got to grad school, all of that was gone. Learning was me sitting in a chair spending an hour at a time pretending that Hegel made sense; that it wasn’t magnet-poetry disguised as philosophy. The idea that education is respectable goes against any notion of education being successful.
Change your Mind
It’s a humbling experience to change your mind. And humbling experiences are funny. So you bet your ass that a serious, beautiful, strange book like Moby Dick, a book that is, indeed, attempting to change the reader’s mind, will be funny from cover to cover.
So the next time you’re thinking about a book you like, think about why you really like it. Is it because of the beautiful symmetries and elevated poetry and sophisticated themes? Or do you just really like the characters? It’s okay to take pleasure from what you read. It’s okay to read because reading is fun. Actually… I’m not sure that it’s okay not to take pleasure from what you read. Find a way back to the fun. Even if you’re reading something for work. Read it with someone and discuss. Or, in other cases, read something else.
Two cats are sitting on a cushion, contemplating their respective links in the great chain of being: a large orange cat with dark-orange stripes smiles down placidly at a small grey cat with grey stripes. The latter looks out of the frame of the comic, a pinched expression on his face as if the universe has once again failed to live up to his (admittedly exacting) expectations
Big Cat: I started reading that Robert Caro biography about Lyndon Johnson
Little Cat: Oh yeah? Any insights?
Big Cat: Not yet. It’s just page after page about what a dick he was growing up.
Little Cat: So it’s spiteful gossip about a dead president?
Big Cat: Well… I wouldn’t put it QUITE like that.
Little Cat: Why not? Also, can I borrow it when you’re done?