Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet
by Tony Hoagland
Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet Introduction
In A Nutshell
When's the last time you enjoyed yourself on plane?
No seriously. When you take the cramped seats, the screaming babies, the sneezing seatmates, and the (expensive) abysmal food and add 'em all together, you've got a recipe for hell on earth. Or at least, 30,000 feet above the earth.
And that's all not to mention that when you're up there, you're totally disconnected from the outside world. The air is re-pressurized, stale, and re-circulated. You can't use your phone. And all you can see of the world you know is through tiny, incredibly thick windows. It's not exactly a recipe for sanity.
But in his 1998 poem "Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet," contemporary poet Tony Hoagland offers up a sort of antidote to the passive life he sees represented in being an airplane passenger, by reminding us that even when you're stuck in a steel tube hurtling through the atmosphere, you can connect with the world by reading a book.
In the poem, we move from the present, to memory, to a meditation on life, to a scene from the book the speaker's reading—Moby-Dick, which sparks his imagination and reminds him that there's more to life than rushing to and fro.
So if you ever find yourself totally bored on an airplane hurtling toward your next business trip to Cleveland or Kalamazoo, counting the rows until the flight attendant finally arrives to give you a Coke, remember this poem and dive into a book. That might make your flying experience just a teensy bit more bearable.
Why Should I Care?
Who doesn't daydream about working as a deck hand on a 19th-century whaling vessel? Oh, wait—you don't? Okay, well, maybe you're not reading Moby-Dick right now, and dreaming about harpoons and mainsails. But we're betting you've spent a good portion of your life fantasizing about spending it in other, much more exciting ways.
Especially when you take into account the level of excitement many of us have on average. Really, how does your typical day go? Probably a little like this: bed, car, chair, car, couch, bed. Or: lie down, sit, sit, sit, sit, lie down. Thrilling, right?
Now, we obviously enjoy feeling safe and secure. But, probably because we don't have many experiences of wildness and danger, we fantasize about those very things. Think about the books we tend to read and the movies we watch. Time and time again, we go for vampires and magic, horror movies and action films, war movies and apocalyptic stories. When it comes down to it, most of us wouldn't actually choose to live through the apocalypse, but we sure like the wildness of it, and the way it changes the landscape of possibilities.
Maybe you've had a daydream about something crazy happening in your own life, too—your school burning down; being called up to fly the next space mission; a big blizzard coming in and stopping all regular activity for a couple of days. You probably didn't really want any of the negative consequences that might come along with those things, but you enjoyed imagining a release from your less-than-stimulating routine.
When things are very stable and regular, we're thrilled by the idea of uncertainty, not knowing exactly what's going to happen next. In "Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet," Tony Hoagland taps into this desire for adventure, this longing to break from the apparent security and monotony of modern life.