Moby-Dick is my favorite novel of all time, and what I love about it the most is that it feels true on so many different levels.
The experience of reading it really does feel like the Pequod’s long, insane voyage to the ends of the Earth. It’s a huge novel like the leviathans they’re chasing. And the plot, a search for an elusive whale, surely mimics what it felt like for Melville to write the novel itself.
The plot feels true to the fictional characters and events it depicts. It feels true about society at a particular juncture and about human nature in a more timeless way. And it feels true about the experience writing the work itself.
When I think of great works of literature, the layers of meaning tend to collapse on themselves like this, whether it’s The Sound and the Fury, Beloved, Amsterdam, The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God.
I like to think of it as arranging a series of lenses. When the lenses of truths are assembled just so and the novel rings true on multiple levels, you can use it as either a microscope or a telescope to see the world up close or far away.
- Do these events seem true to my characters?
- Do these events seem true to the moment of time we’re in?
- Do these events capture something eternal about humanity?
- Do these events reflect what it was like for me to write the novel itself?
I don’t know if I succeeded, but I really think we read books to find out what’s real and what we should do about it. If you keep thinking about truths, you may just end up with something transcendent.
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Art: Still life with telescopes and an astrolabe, an hour glass, a book and a quill by Philippe Rousseau