Reading Moby-Dick

Call me obsessive. Some time ago – never mind how long precisely – I thought I would read Moby-Dick and see the watery part of the world through Herman Melville’s eyes. I wanted to discover another author from this period, of which I am very fond. The early part of the 19th century, also called “the American renaissance”, saw the likes of many of America’s greatest authors: Thoreau, Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, and others, who are among my favorite writers. While I have read many of these writers, I had not yet explored Melville. Moby-Dick, being one of the summits of 19th century fiction, therefore stood before me as a monolithic work, one that, I felt, would take some preparation.

But something about 19th century authors can make their works difficult to penetrate, at least without a solid understanding of the times and the context of their writings. My reading experience, both of fiction and history, had armed me well to fit the text into the times, but I wanted to know more, to get the most out of this book that is said to be so great.

Several people I know have read Moby-Dick, and they told me how boring they found it; their experiences generally dated back to high school, a time of less patience. It’s clear that as a teenager it could be hard to understand not only the style of the writing, but the overall structure of the book. So, my obsession led me to read not just Moby-Dick, but also Melville.

To do this, I bought the three Library of America editions of Melville’s works: the first volume contains three “South Seas” works, Typee, Omoo and Mardi (Typee and Omoo are “true stories”, says Melville; it is more likely that they are based in truth and embellished substantially). The second volume contains Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick, all novels. And the final volume contains, in addition to some “uncollected prose”, Melville’s post-sea novels, Pierre, Israel Potter, and The Confidence Man, some short stories, including Bartelby the Scrivener, and the posthumous Billy Budd.

At the same time, I wanted to learn more about Melville’s life, and purchased the interesting yet not over-long Melville: A Biography by Laurie Robertson-Lorant. (The two-volume biography by Hershel Parker seemed a bit much at this stage.)

So, armed with all this, I set out to read Moby-Dick; along the way, I discovered much more than I bargained for.

Melville was a strange man, prone to depression and bouts of incredible literary production. He wrote his first seven novels – or about 3,000 pages in the Library of America editions – in about six years, an astounding rate of production. This writing seems to have been an explosion of pent-up creative energy, which, in fact, more or less dried up after 1857 (or about a dozen years after he started writing). The first six books came from his experiences sailing around the world: from 1841-1844, Melville sailed on a merchant ship, a man-of-war, and a whaler, and all three of these ships are settings he uses in his novels (Typee, Omoo and Mardi feature ships, but mostly take place on islands in the Pacific; Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick are centered, respectively, around a merchant ship, man-of-war, and whaler).

But all this is actually moot, when considering reading an author’s works, especially in a spurt of élan, similar to that which Melville experienced while writing them. I read the first six books in about a month, which, for some 2,800 pages of text, is fast, even for me. I was drawn into Melville’s world, and his style, so much so that I almost could not stop reading. These books are not beach reading material, but once I became familiar with the rhythms and tones of Melville’s writing, I wanted more, and kept on reading through his personal narrative of his life.

When I finally got to Moby-Dick, which was the “great white whale” of my personal quest, as well as Captain Ahab’s, I felt I understood not only Melville’s writing, but also his need for using writing as a cathartic process. For many aspects of Melville’s life were dark and disturbing, from his relationship with his father to that with his mother; from his family’s descent from the bourgeoisie to that of small-town ennui. Herman Melville was not a man who could be pinned down in one place, and, after his experience before the mast, he needed to express himself but break through all limits. The great white whale was, for him, more than just a metaphor of life and death; it seems to have been an expression of his own desire to write, to create, to go beyond the simple life he was living at the time.

Yes, parts of Moby-Dick can be seen as boring, but readers generally don’t understand the literary context of the times. This was the period when novels were being born in the United States, where fiction often contained fact; the long chapters on cetology in Moby-Dick, which serve as counterpoint and punctuation to the action in the book are structurally similar to the moralistic and expository sections of other novels of the period. Some people suggest that you skip these chapters, but this would do great wrong in taking out what could be seen as the spermaceti of the book. Melville does not merely wax intellectual in these sections, but provides the subtle background for the great climax of the book. As Ahab struggles with his quest, so Melville fights to construct an edifice of Leviathan proportions, and his foundations need to be solid.

Naturally, no one could write a book like this today. Exposition of the sort that Melville used to explain about whales is considered a great heresy in modern literature; combining this sort of fiction and fact would, today, be the sign of an uncultured scrivener. But exceptions prove rules, and Melville’s great achievement was providing a totally-encompasing whole, in which readers who knew nothing of whales, whalers and whaling, could become immersed in a story that acts on many levels. The beauty of Moby-Dick is this intense plunge into not only the narrative of Ahab hunting the whale, but also the tiny details of shipboard life, the oft excessive discussions of different types of whales, and the portrayals of the different personages who peopled the Pequod.

Now that I have read Moby-Dick, I still have a third volume of Melville’s works to read. While I know that Moby-Dick was the zenith of Melville’s writing, and closed (though not entirely) his writings about life at sea, I look forward to the later works with the same pleasure that I moved ahead through these first six books. Herman Melville was certainly one of the great writers of America’s 19th century, and deserves to be known for more than just a story about a whale; he deserves greater recognition for the universe he created through his books, and the intensity that he transferred from his life to his writings.

Henry David Thoreau and the Walden Mailing List

The Walden mailing list is dedicated to Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 to May 6, 1862). It is named after his best known work, Walden, a recounting of a period of time he spent living “deliberately” next to Walden Pond, outside of Concord, Massachusetts.

Thoreau was a writer and philosopher, as well as an activist. As he wrote, in Walden,
“it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.”

We offer the list as a place to discuss:

  • The pleasure that Thoreau’s writing provides us and the relevance of his ideas to life in the 21st Century.
  • Books about Thoreau’s life and works
  • Other authors from the period called The American Renaissance, particularly ones whose lives or literature moved Thoreau. (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, etc.)
  • Living deliberately
  • Nature writing and environmental concerns
  • A place to meet others who share your interest in the world of Henry David Thoreau.

Note: this list was initially created in 1996, and was housed on a server which has since disappeared. For that reason, the first five years of archives were lost. The list was moved to in late 2001, and it was then moved to Google Groups. Archives are available for the Yahoo mailing list from 2001 to 2014.

To subscribe to this mailing list, go to the!forum/walden-list at Google Groups.

If you want a very good annotated version of Walden – arguably one of the finest books written in the English language – see this review.

Thoreau Links

The riverText café: Brian Thomas’ site, which notably houses If Monks had Macs
The Thoreau Society: Perhaps the best Thoreau site, with e-texts of almost all of his works, biographical info, scholarship, and lots more.
Henry David Thoreau online: a comprehensive site about Thoreau, with e-texts of many of his works
The Thoreau Reader: annotated works of Henry David Thoreau
The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: definitive editions of Thoreau’s works
Ken Pedersen’s Walden CD: music inspired by Thoreau
Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson: my website dedicated to Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leading mind behind Transcendentalism

Yet Another Important Box Set: Bach’s Sacred Cantatas

Gustav Leonhardt & Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the Concentus Musicus Wien

Buy from | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

If you like Bach, you simply must be familiar with his sacred cantatas. These vocal and instrumental works, written to be performed in church on Sundays and on feast days, feature some of Bach’s finest melodies. This set, conducted by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, was groundbreaking when it was first released, starting in the 1970s. At the time, it was the only complete set of cantatas, but now many others are available. Performed in what is now called historically informed performance, this set is unique in that it has no female singers; only boys are used for the soprano voices, unlike other recordings.

This re-release is a reminder just how great this music is, and how important it is to know. While I have this set, and like it, I prefer more recent recordings, such as the in-progress complete sets by John Gardiner or Maasaki Suzuki. But the pure instrumental sound achieved in these recordings, and the simplicity of the boy singers’ voices, makes it an essential recording. It’s not cheap, but for Bach fanatics it is a must-have.

Henry James’s Letters: What’s the Point of Publishing Them?

Henry James was a prolific epistolarian: it is estimated that he wrote as many as 40,000 letters in his lifetime. While many are lost, editors currently have access to more than 10,000 letters, and the University of Nebraska Press has recently published the first two volumes of what will exceed 140 volumes of letters! (Volume 1 and Volume 2; a review in the London Review of Books.)

I’m a huge fan of Henry James – he is one of my favorite authors in the English language – and find current collections of his letters interesting. But what’s the point of publishing 140 volumes of his correspondence, especially when the first two volumes are available at the price $90 and $95 respectively. One commenter wrote, about these first two volumes, “[T]he general public has been deprived of James’s full epistolary record until now…”

Can one really say that these books are for the general public? Those with bank accounts like Croesus, perhaps, and Methuselan life-spans, perhaps; at the rate of publication, it will take decades for this set to be published. These books are certainly not for the general public, but rather for scholars, and for libraries. In today’s world, what sense is there in publishing such texts in book form, especially when additional letters will be found in the future, which will not be able to be inserted in to the books in the correct chronological order? After all, the academics behind this project don’t make any money from it; why not just publish it on the Internet, and, eventually, on CD or DVD?

No, there’s something perverse about this. While I would welcome the chance to read some of these letters, there seems no logic in making expensive books, and killing trees, to provide all of them to a handful of scholars. It’s a shame that academia is so behind the times: this sort of work should be available on the web, for free, to all those who are interested, not just to those in ivory towers with the means to have their university purchase them.

Visit my Reading Henry James website.

Book Notes: The SFWA European Hall of Fame

The SFWA European Hall of Fame
Edited by James and Kathryn Morrow
336 pages. Tor, 2007. $27

Buy from | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

Some years ago, at the Utopiales festival in Nantes, France, a group of European science fiction authors were lamenting that no American publishers were interested in bringing European science fiction–let alone much European literature of any kind–to their country. As a translator, I was especially disappointed, since I have long wanted to translated fiction from French to English, but publishers generally balked at the cost of translations. A curious reaction, since so many European publishers paid both royalties and translation costs to publish American works of literature on this side of the pond…James Morrow, award-winning author of such novels as Towing Jehovah, and The Last Witchfinder, who was a guest at the festival together with his wife Kathryn, found this situation unbalanced, and suggested trying to do something about it. Over several years of attendance at the festival, a number of meetings were organized with authors and translators (including myself) to discuss the prospects of editing and publishing an anthology of science-fiction stories from Europe. The Morrows managed to convince SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) to fund this anthology, and Jim and Kathy set out to select works, find translators, and find editors to work with the translators to make the results as polished as possible.

The results are available in this interesting and curious book, The SFWA European Hall of Fame, a collection of sixteen stories from thirteen countries. Discover works by authors from Russia to France, from Poland to Portugal, and read science fiction that, while rooted in the American tradition, features ideas with accents. What this anthology shows more than anything is that ideas of this sort are not only owned by the Americans or the English, but are present around the world. The insularity of American publishers is such that they don’t take the risk of publishing much foreign fiction, but perhaps a book like this will give them some ideas.

For the curious, you can read a couple of chapters of one of France’s best science fiction authors, Pierre Bordage, in my translation here. Pierre is not featured in this anthology, being more a writer of epic novels than short stories, but his work features a vision that deserves better recognition outside of France. (He is one of France’s best-selling science fiction authors.)

Spotlight’s Secret Search Syntax

With the release of Mac OS X 10.5, Leopard, Apple has greatly improved its search technology, called Spotlight. Introduced with the previous version of Mac OS X (Tiger), Spotlight was both brilliant and stunted; brilliant because it can work so well in certain situations, but stunted because it was so limited. It didn’t offer Boolean searches (AND, NOT, OR), which meant all your searches were, like Google searches, based on every word you entered. So if you typed King and Lear, you’d find anything with both words, but not with King or Lear alone. And there was no way to find a file containing Kind and NOT Lear. All that’s changed.

Boolean searches, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Tiger had a couple of operators you could use with keywords, that most people didn’t know about. They were the kind: and date: keywords. You could type, say, kind:pdf to find PDF files; or kind:music to narrow a spotlight search down to music files. And you could use date:today to find files modified today, and date:tomorrow to find appointments scheduled for tomorrow. (You can use both these keywords in the Spotlight menu, or in the Finder’s Search field.)These two keywords still exist in Leopard, but are greatly expanded. Let me begin with the date: keyword, since it’s the simpler one. To start with, Apple has added operators that you can use with this keyword: they are >, <, and -.

Here are some examples:

date:>1/1/07 will find any file modified after January 1, 2007. (The dates you enter must correspond to the short date format you have set in your International preferences.)

date:<12/31/07 will find any file modified before December 31, 2007.

date:1/1/07-12/31/07 will find files modified between those two dates.

But things get interesting when you look at the kind: keyword. Apple has expanded this to dozens of new kinds, and made it potentially limitless. There is no list of kinds, but you can get an idea by doing the following. In the Finder, type the letter “a” in the search field. Choose List View (click the List view icon, or press Command-2). Then click the Kind column to sort by kind in alphabetical order. You’ll see a wide range of kinds: from Alias and Application to ZIP Archive, by way of MP3 Audio Files, Folders, JPEG Images and much more. Now try a Spotlight search, either from the Spotlight menu or the Finder: type, say, kind:word, if you have Microsoft Word documents on your Mac; if not, try kind:text. The former will show you all your word documents, and the latter will show you all your text files, at least those created by TextEdit and some other applications.

This is especially useful when tracking down files you made with specific applications. For example, I’m writing this article in BBEdit; I can search for all BBEdit files by typing kind:bb (you don’t always need to type out the entire kind to get hits; two or three letters may be enough).

Well, you may think that’s powerful, but you haven’t seen anything yet. In addition to these expanded operators, Spotlight now has a limitless set of other operators. Not only are there kind: and date: keywords, but there are dozens of new keywords. None of this is documented yet, but you can get a glimpse of what’s available by selecting the Other attribute in the Finder’s search bar, or by checking the following file:


The former gives you names and explanations, and the latter shows you exactly how to type the operators. For example, to use Audio Bit Rate, you’ll see in the latter file that you have to type either audiobitrate: or bitrate:.

Here are some examples of the new operators:

Find a file by searching for the person who created it (in programs that store this information) by typing author:. For example, I’ll find files I’ve created with author:kirk. For now, the only programs I have that come up are Word, Pages, Mail and iChat (chat logs). There are also some PDF’s I’ve created from Word or Pages files. (You can also use from:, with: or by: to find the same information.)

Find files created using the AAC codec with codec:aac. This finds both music and video files.

Find files with comments using the comment: operator. This applies to comments made to iTunes files as to Spotlight comments added in the Finder; other programs may also support this.

Find files with an audio bit rate of 32 kpbs by typing audiobitrate:32, or bitrate:32.

Find music files where Bach is listed as composer: composer:bach.

Find pictures taken at an ISO speed of 400 by typing iso:400; find photos taken at an ISO speed higher than that by typing iso:>400.

I’ll stop here, but you can see that the possibilities are quite extensive. In addition, third party programs can add their own attributes that can be searched. One way to find what they can do is to take a file and run the mdls command in it in Terminal (mdls <filename>). This will display all the file’s metadata, and will allow you to discover which attributes it is using. You’ll also see this information in the Finder, when you choose the Other search attribute as explained above.

As yet, Apple hasn’t documented this, so let’s hope they do so soon with a complete list containing explanations. (For some of these operators it’s not clear exactly how to use them; however, if you have files that they can find, some trial and error should help you discover the answer.) These operators are likely not something you’ll use daily, but when you’re trying to find that lost file on your Mac, or simply trying to sort a group of files, will come in handy.

Glenn Gould Box Set: Available Now

Buy from | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

As the holiday season approaches, it’s time for plenty of box sets to tempt music fans. This one, a collection of every recording Glenn Gould made, 80 CDs that resemble the original LPs, is a godsend for fans of the Great Gould. I have to admit having a weakness for Glenn, especially for his Bach recordings. While I own all his Bach, and much of his Beethoven, there are many discs I don’t have, and this set is very tempting indeed. Gould was one of those rare performers who lived a life dedicated to music his way. He famously gave up touring to focus on recording in the studio, looking for perfection with technology. This may or may not have been the best choice, but Gould’s recordings are some of the most idiomatic in the history of piano recordings.

Coincidentally, I recently read an interesting biography of Gould entitled Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. So I’m in the perfect mindset to listen to lots of Gould, and I’m looking forward to this set.

Find and Conquer Duplicates in your iTunes Library

Doug Adams, the AppleScript guru, has just released Dupin 1.0, a nifty new (Mac-only) program that assists with locating, sorting, filtering, and deleting duplicate tracks in iTunes.

Here’s what Dupin can do:

  • Quickly find all sets of duplicate iTunes tracks based on your choice of criteria
  • Select the “Keeper” tracks from among a number of duplicates automatically using a variety of versatile filtering options
  • Purge duplicate tracks from iTunes and send files to the Trash
  • Manage intentionally duplicated tracks
  • Copy tracks to new iTunes playlists
  • View duplicates in non-loaded libraries created with iTunes’ multiple library feature
  • View duplicates in iTunes libraries on other machines on your local network
  • Sort tracks and view track info
  • Export a list of duplicates to a text file
  • Locate tracks in the Finder and in iTunes
  • Play tracks

Dupin is a very cool program; I was fortunate to be able to test it before release, and can attest to its usefulness and coolness. If you’ve got lots of dupes in your iTunes library and want to control them, give it a try.

Some of My Translations

In addition to being a writer, I’ve worked as a translator from French to English for the past dozen years. While much of my work involved translating technical documents, I have also translated a number of books, and excerpts from books. Here is a list of some of my translations, links to samples, and links to pages on for those books that have been published. (Alas, several of them are out of print…)


China in a Mirror, by Roland and Sabrina Michaud. This lovely book combines photographs of today’s China with, on facing pages, pictures of Chinese art that mirrors the photos. I translated the preface to this book, which was written by my friend Cyrille Javary.

Understanding the I Ching, by Cyrille Javary, is a book about the I Ching, its history, and its usage. The book is out of print, but you should be able to find used copies in a number of online bookstores. The link at the beginning of this paragraph takes you to a page about the book with an excerpt from it.

Lebanon, the Phoenician Pearl is a beautiful book of photos and history about Lebanon.

Versailles is a small, color art and history book about the Château de Versailles, as seen through the kings and queens that lived there.

Marrakesh: The Secret of Its Courtyard Houses is a beautiful book about the houses hidden behind the walls of Marrakesh. You will never be able to see most of these houses, but this book looks at the architecture and the history of this style of house.

Arabesques, by Jean-Marc Castéra, is an astounding book about arabesques, the ceramic mosaics traditional in northern Africa and the Middle East. Not only does it present these works of art, but it also shows the mathematic underpinnings of their design.

Paris; ah, gay Paree, as we say. A book that recounts the history of the city of lights, with memorable photos of the architecture that makes Paris so magical.


Genia, by Manual Martin, a spiritual thriller, written long before that other best-selling book which codified the genre. Abundant samples are available on the web site.

The Warriors of Silence, by Pierre Bordage. Two sample chapters of this unpublished novel. Pierre Bordage is one of France’s best-selling science fiction authors. I’ve translated other long excerpts of Pierre Bordage’s work for French publishers; I do not have the rights to post them here.

The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes. A work-in-progress that I’ll finish one day. You can download several sections of this work in PDF format.

I am always interested in translating books, both fiction and non-fiction, so if you are a publisher, editor or author, feel free to send me an e-mail. I’m especially interested in 19th century French fiction, classics such as Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac and Guy de Maupassant; history; science; science ficton; and mysteries and thrillers.

The Demise of the Recording Industry

As music fans know, the recording industry is in a shambles. The labels, and the RIAA, like to blame it on file sharing and illegal downloads, but what if the reality were different? What if the recording industry has sown the seeds of its own destruction? Prospect magazine has an interesting article looking at how the industry is killing itself, and how it seems unlikely to pull out of its current slump.

From the article:

“Yet the music industry itself must take some of the blame for the decline of the CD. For the past 15 years, free covermounts [CDs included for free] on magazines and newspapers, licensed or even paid for by record companies, have diluted the perceived value of recorded music in general and CDs in particular.”