The oddest intellectual disjuncture of parenting so far has come during my quiet hours of feeding the baby her bottle. I’ve been listening to
books on tape audiobooks* while she drinks, because bottle feeding requires two hands, considerable attention, and a healthy dose of patience. I’ve been mostly consuming nineteenth century novels, because it can’t hurt to bone up on some of the century’s doorstop classics, which are mostly too long to work into my regular rotation of professional reading. I tend to gravitate to books that I know, but not particularly well, and which don’t directly bear on my research but which are important in the overall sweep of cultural and intellectual history of the nineteenth-century U.S. It also doesn’t hurt that you can download public-domain books on tape audiobook (generally pre-1923) from Librivox for free, and I’m too cheap to pay for Audible. Most recently, I’ve been wading through Moby-Dick, at the rate of two or three chapters per 7 ounces of milk. (Melville’s chapters are short, and the baby likes to take her sweet time.) I am quickly coming to the conclusion that Moby-Dick was a deeply weird choice for the particular context of baby feeding.
It has always struck me that Moby-Dick is to some extent a book about an arbitrary group of people who are all working through the past traumas of their back stories in different, and differently productive, ways. Ishmael is driven by this weird and never clearly explained compulsion to go to sea. Queequeg has a long and tortured backstory, and seems to live perpetually suspended between Kokovoko and Nantucket. And of course Ahab has a history with a whale, that drives him to crazy extremes. Take these three, as well as all the other minor characters, put them into the claustrophobic confines of a whaling ship, and watch them work out their issues in an environment of punishing rigor. Presto, you got a novel. It’s like Survivor, but with nineteenth-century personality quirks and actual, real danger.
But it’s kind of disorienting to be listening to the tale of these tortured souls confronting the demons of their pasts while looking down at a human being that’s less than half a year old, who doesn’t have much of a past to speak of, and who can’t yet take the kind of actions impelled by that past that will ultimately lead to her doom. She’s a blank slate, but I’m thinking about slates that are so indelibly scribbled upon that they’re mostly busted. It feels like my ears and my hands are temporarily inhabiting completely different realities. It’s not exactly an unpleasant feeling, but it does stretch me out like silly putty.
Which begs the question, if you had to listen to one of the nineteenth-century doorstop classic novels while feeding a baby, which one would it be, and why? Help me out here.
* Thanks to one of the many smart librarians in my life for the correction.