Saturday, 4 October 2008

A Casual Definition

Herman Melville defines a 'Gam' as:

"GAM.* NOUN- A social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats' crews..."

Now, originally - not being used to the idea of a blog - I intended to wax intellectual on my readers and make some wonderful statement about how 'like unto a whale-ship is the casual surfer of the Internet, and, yea, how like unto a cruising ground is the Internet itself..."
Which is true, and does offer some interesting points to consider (as a student of English Literature I could spend hours on this, but never mind) but in itself is as pretentious as a studied Shakespearean style monologue with a soupcon of natural history and a large helping of obsession (and yes, that pointed remark is directed at Melville, damn him!)The point I was trying to make is that a 'gam' is communication -no matter whether it's the nautical solemnity of sea-captains between whaling ships, or books - like a rowing boat between readers and the author, poets, with their lines of poetry - or even a keyboard acting as a sort of metaphorical 'rowing boat' between the unknown vessel that is writer and reader on a weblog. Which also fits in rather nicely with something that really inspired me in my very first lecture of the year. As a freshman I'm probably being rather naive that it never crossed my mind before - but the lecturer suggested something that made me sit up as if I'd been electrified. The idea that books read you, just at the same time as you read books.
Now, I'm pretty sure what she truly meant was that we come to a book with a whole series of impressions, thoughts, experiences, and these come into play when we open a piece of fiction for the very first time. What we get from the book also comes from what's inside us, so to speak. But when I heard her say the phrase that books can read you, I sat bolt upright with a sort of horror.
Imagine this - becuase this is what emerged as a sort of instant image in my head.

The humble English Lit student is sitting quietly in a cafe somewhere, patiently struggling through Moby Dick for the twenty-seventh time. She's tired of toiling through the 'interesting facts about whales' section - sometimes she even gets sick of the 'jolly sailors' section. She skips to a page folded over with a particularly good rant from Captain Ahab.
And just as she does...
Someone, with a heavy creak of an ivory peg leg against the tiles, comes and sits down next to her. Also deeply immersed in a book. It could, in fact, be Captain Ahab - if Ahab frequented places like Costa Coffee.
The Lit student snorts at a particularly indecipherable part. 'I give up!' she says disgustedly. 'How on earth are you supposed to analyse a man who can declaim something about the "personified impersonal's personality?" in the middle of a storm? He must be a demented English tutor!'
'Thou shouldst read mine,' the whiskery stranger says with a scowl at his own book. 'T'is naught but simpering women's foolishness. Nary a whit of substance or matter!'
The student looks sympathetic. 'I hate it when books defraud you into thinking they're something they're not.'
'Aye, t'is a sad thing when the instruments of wisdom become no more than a bauble for female vanity. Too concerned with her own merit!'
'Complete egotistical maniac!'
'Aye, and too concerned with articles of dress!'
'Ah, mine's too concerned with weaponry. And vengeance. '
'Oh? Well, the heroine seems to do nothing but idle her time away with books! Talks of nothing else but-'
'Damn whales, and the way of hunting the poor things-'
'always damn tap-tap-tapping...'
'And both complete obsessives,' both finish, in a long slow chorus. They both exchange glances of sympathy.
'Mind if I take a glance at yours?' The student asks, as Ahab scans the cover of Moby Dick with a suspicious stare. 'I've never seen one with before...'
To our heroine's horror, the book's title...
Is her own name.
As she was reading Ahab, Ahab was reading her. And neither came to a flattering opinion of the other.

A fairly average vignette - there were some worse ones that came to mind, of course. Ahab is child's play compared to some - who would want Mr Hyde gibbering quietly away as he read your life, or any of the Cthulhu brood of H.P Lovecraft? Of course, some I didn't mind - I quite liked the thought of the tragic Monster from Frankenstein bending his head over a copy of me, for instance (the book version of the Monster, that is. NOT Boris Karloff or Robert de Niro). And if one can be er... selective, say, about what others read about you, then who could possibly object to Mr Rochester or Mr Darcy sitting stiffly down in their echoing libraries to read about you in turn? The only awkward thing is if they can read EVERYTHING about you. Your fears, most embarrassing moments, deepest secrets, unflattering things you've thought/said/done/wished you hadn't done...
Now there is a terror to haunt a student's waking hours! Be careful what you read. It might just read you back...

1 comment:

Mercury Gray said...

Books do read you back! That's very true. They're like mirrors -- they show you parts of yourself and realize things about you that you're afraid to confront. I, for instance, had to read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye for a class in Peace Studies and that book, which deals with abuse and rape in a poor community, made me realize a lot about who I am (or who I could be) as a woman in this world.

But seriously -- you're in Manchester, England, and reading Moby Dick? I thought that was a kind of torture particular only to the American school system. I left my copy of Melville at my house, so I can't commiserate with you over the antics of Ahab and his crew, but I sympathise. He's read me, too. Books have a strange way of uniting people across continents, don't you agree?