Robert Birnbaum talks to Andrew Delbanco about his recent biography of Melville; here's a short excerpt:
AD: I have always been finicky about my prose. I just think-this sounds corny-I reached deeper into myself and found ways to express sensitive matters, and I had some nuance, and most of all, I think I gave the book some momentum, some drive. And that is really hard to do when you write about the sorts of topics I tend to write about. History of ideas and cultural history. Another editor whom I greatly respect and said something to me many years ago, when I told her I was writing a book about the theme of evil; she listened respectfully and she seemed to think that was OK, and then she said to me, 'How are you going to tell this as a story?'
AD: And ever since she asked me that question, I realized I had been kind of groping for that insight into writing-that no matter what you're writing, you really have to find way to turn your subject into a story if you expect anyone to read it.
RB: Which is basic to having talented teachers present subjects-they bring those subjects alive with stories and their own passion.
AD: That's right. And there is a great hazard of academic life. I love the academic life in some ways, and I am very lucky to have a job that can't be taken away from me, but there is a temptation to just write for people who already know a lot about the subject and are going to read whatever you write because they need to, not because it's pleasurable or exciting. But that is not exactly writing. Writing is a form of communication that persuades people to keep on reading. So, I felt I did that better in this book than I had ever done, and I am not sure I could do it again to the same degree. But maybe I'm just feeling drained at the moment.
And here's the link if you want to buy the book at Amazon; Andy is my colleague at Columbia, I've got the book and it looks excellent and I am feeling rather remorseful for not having read it yet, but I think it is going to have to wait a while & then I will read it and use it as a prompt to reread Moby Dick, which is a novel I loved when I read it (I was like "How come nobody told me to read this book before?!?" I was twenty-three or -four and an obsessive & wide-ranging novel-reader who mistakenly thought it was some kind of a dull sea story and as soon as I actually picked it up and started reading--the summer after my first year of graduate school, out of the sense that as a graduate student in English literature this really was a book I should be ashamed not to have read--I was fuming that nobody told me how great it was!) but have only read once, and in this case once is clearly not enough.
Actually I have been having a yen to reread some other classics I don't know well from multiple rereadings (as opposed to the novelists like Austen and Dickens and Eliot and Trollope that I have read over and over again), especially Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Maybe this summer?