The Whale in the Room by Vincent McCaffrey
In my junior year of high school, in 1964, I opted to read Moby Dick as part of my discretionary reading. It was a bit of grandstanding, in fact. I thought I had already read it a year or two before and would use it to impress my teacher and squeeze out a higher mark. I promptly went down to Anderson’s Bookshop in Larchmont and looked around for a copy. What I found there was a humongously fat Signet paperback. I asked the forbearing woman who usually worked the counter what was wrong with it. Where was the ‘regular’ edition I had previously read? She was totally mystified by my objection. She sputtered. She looked at me hopelessly. She shook her head and said, “Looks fine to me.”
A small gathering of patrons encircled us, each offering comments of their own as they in turn took the chunky volume and fanned through the pages. I remember one who helpfully offered the added information that this copy lacked a glossary. It was actually too short. I should buy an edition with a glossary so that I could look up the meaning of unusual words. Under their scrutiny, I could not admit that I had believed it was a much shorter work to begin with. Already committed, I took the advice offered and bought an edition with a glossary.
On the way home that day I stopped at the public library and found the version—the exact volume—that I had read before. It was in fact shorter. It was edited. Abridged. All of the parts of the great book which did not further the immediate advancement of plot, as well as all the too difficult words, were removed. No comic irony. No allegory. No religious metaphor. No slicing of the whale flesh “as thin as Bible-leaves.”
Several parts of this memory strike me as unusual in our present time. Firstly, Anderson’s was a small bookshop, however fine in its selection, but they had several editions of a single title on the shelf. Secondly, that of the half dozen or so customers in the shop on a weekday afternoon, most of them had read Moby Dick and felt knowledgeable enough to pass judgment on the copy I had objected to. Thirdly, that I would read such a book, and willingly.
I had friends who had read Moby Dick, so it is no tribute to my individual development at the age of sixteen. I did hang around with an odd bunch perhaps. But when I mentioned a portion of this observation to someone just recently they argued, ‘Harry Potter is a long book, and it’s filled with difficult words, and it is very popular.’ I paraphrase, but that is the gist of their comment. I couldn’t answer them without sounding rude, so I simply nodded and sighed. I am often a coward about such things. How do you politely call someone an idiot if you have not the time to explain nor the wit of an Oscar Wilde.
We live in a diminishing age. My greatest pain has been to watch the slow death of the book. I have been talking about this subject for almost forty years, so it is not a matter of the coming of electronic ink and e-books. In fact, those items, per se, are quite wonderful to me. But that the book might finally die before me has become an actual fear of late.
I am told by some authorities that my worry is unfounded. That more books are published now than when I was a boy. That more words are written today than ever before. That reading has increased.
I have also commonly witnessed the use of the statistic to hide the fact.