I went to see my colleague Andy Delbanco read from his new book Melville :His World and Work, and it was really excellent: I can't wait to read it. I love biographies of writers, though I don't seem to have been reading many of them this past year or so. The book's been getting fantastic reviews all over the place, including a very favorable and thoughtful piece by Frederick Crews in the New York Review of Books (subscription only) which includes some useful discussion of Delbanco's work on Melville in relation to the field of American Studies. (In short, Crews calls it "an eclectic, humane, historically grounded tribute to Melville's best achievements and a moving account of the troubles that closed in on him" that "quietly but knowingly goes against the academic grain.") And I gather we are to expect an interview soon with Robert Birnbaum; I expect I'll link when it's up.
Hearing Andy talk about Melville acutely reminded me of my experience of reading Moby Dick the summer after my first year of grad school. (I think I already posted about this recently, so apologies for the repetition.) I had always vaguely lumped it with Conrad's sea stories, which I don't really like at all, and imagined it must be a rather off-putting tome; but a year at Yale had given me some vague shame at not having read it and I thought I might as well read it over the summer when I wasn't doing coursework. Imagine my shock when I started reading and discovered that it was THE MOST AMAZING BOOK IN THE WORLD. It made me really, really angry that nobody had told me this before--it's a book that comes with a sort of "it's not enjoyable, but it's good for you" horrible medicinal flavor, and yet that is so incredibly unfair; it is the craziest and most demented and most enjoyable novel imaginable, really. I loved all the whaling stuff, that's exactly my kind of thing (expert knowledge!), but I had seriously had no idea how much of Shakespeare there was in it (I love Shakespeare) and how much of Melville there is in Pynchon and . . . you get the idea. I fell in love with it, in short, just as I had with Paradise Lost earlier that year. And I bemoaned the state of affairs that had let me get an excellent education with a strong emphasis on literature without anyone having ever suggested that I might like Milton or Melville.
I think we're due for a massive Melville revival. Carrie's been reading Delbanco in preparation for tackling Moby Dick, and Laura Lippman's talking about rereading Moby Dick. Good stuff.