Bill Pettit is a little obsessed.
The object of his obsession? A book about, among other things, obsession.
Over the last 30 years the Albany resident has collected about 180 volumes of the same book -- Moby Dick.
Some of them came from libraries, others from bookstores and public schools. Most editions are in English, but some are printed in Japanese, Chinese, Latvian, Icelandic and a number of other languages.
This month, 20 of his books are on display at UAlbany's libary.
To get ready for the show, Bill started to blog about the books. And suddenly the collection he'd been living with for years became even more interesting.
OK, first, why Moby Dick?
I actually never read it in high school. But back in the 80s I had to go to Japan. It was going to be a long flight. I needed something to read and I was in this "I'm going to read the books that I was supposed to read in high school but never read" phase. So I grabbed Moby Dick off my shelf -- it was my high school copy -- and I read it on the flight over.
It was fascinating. And I thought there was a tremendous amount of of sarcastic humor in it -- that I saw, anyway. And I was born and raised in southeastern Massachusetts, so there's a whole whaling component in my background -- so it made some personal sense.
But it's one book. One story. You can re-read it whenever you want. So why collect so many versions?
I had my copy from high school and I bought another one, I can't remember why. There was an interesting illustrated one, so I bought that. Then somebody gave me one, and someone else gave me two more. When I had about 7, a friend or one of my kids said, "Why do you have so many Moby Dick books?" I said: because I can.
This book is the great American novel, translated into every language and hugely famous and you can do it for a long time. And each one of the books is different.
But the collection is what it is -- it's just a bunch of books. There's no difference between my Moby Dick collection and a collection of stamps or coins or baseball cards or whatever somebody collects. I started thinking about them differently shortly after I created the blog.
What happened when you blogged about the books?
When I was asked to display the books I thought "Yeah, great." And then immediately went, "I don't know what I'm doing. I've just got a bunch of books, that's all. I never really thought about them in any kind of way." So I put together the blog to just get my thoughts together and see if something would coalesce.
At first it was going to be a retelling of each book "Here's the Norton Critical Edition from 1976, it's got pictures and blah blah, and here's the 1934 Rockwell Kent Edition blah blah..."
It went past that so quickly!
As soon as I'd take a book to blog about, I'd look at it and say, "Well, what's interesting about this book? Well, on the inside cover it says it was owned by Abigail Jones. Well, who the hell is Abigail Jones?" And I'd search Abigail Jones and find out nothing. But the book is underlined and she stopped underlining on page 75. Oh -- she gave up! So there's a story.
So the blog entry became, "I have this book, it's from about 1956, it was owned by Abigail, she was in high school because it says P.S.134 -- and she gave up on page 75." That was fascinating.
So the next one was the Icelandic edition. So I Google search Icelandic and it was "Did you know Iceland is the one country with 100 percent literacy! Everybody reads! And they have books like Moby Dick in Iceland."
I bought Moby Dick in Lithuanian and I've had it for years, but in pulling it off the shelf to make the blog entry I realized, "Oh my God... this thing is letterpress printed." It was printed in the 60s, so it's Soviet era -- they had a big factory that made books and it's letterpress and they didn't do it very well and you can feel the type and they probably had a quota and they had to make 50,000 of them and nobody wanted it and there's a warehouse of Lithuanian Moby Dicks.
Clearly a lot of this is subjective...
I became fascinated with the stories about each book, but also the long arc of the blog -- the thing that carries from chapter one to the end. And the long arc is that books are irreplaceable -- that the Kindle and the Nook are interesting and they're useful and really you should embrace the technology of today, but that a book is a really lovely crafted thing and so much more goes into it.
I knew when I started writing about the different pictures of Ahab -- there's ten of them, I guess -- and when I saw them all together flat out all open in one spot I knew -- you can't do that on the computer, you have to do that with a physical thing. It's like with a newspaper, when all the articles are laid out in front of you. It's a way of human interaction with a printed page that gets missed with electronic media -- and I don't have a problem with electronic media.
The case of the illustrations is fascinating because you see seven people's different opinions on what Ahab looked like. We all kind of think of the classic Gregory Peck, but almost all of these books predate that movie, so each one is a little different. Each one is a lot different.
It made me look at the whole thing in a completely different way. And this entry that I just wrote really sums the whole thing up. It was fascinating to look at all the work that these people did.
And back to the Kindle -- you can have one person type it in on a word processor and another person disseminate the file and two people did it, whereas these books are the result of hundreds of people -- thousands of people, really -- their work and craftsmanship and tradesmanship.
Would this project work with a different book?
Some of us have sat around trying to talk about that. What other book could you do this with? This book in itself is more than just a story about one man who goes after a whale. There's chapters about the kinds of whales, there's chapters about the color of a whale, there's chapters about the color white. That's what made it so unpopular at first and probably more popular later -- the fact that Melville really went over the top in terms of information.
It's not my favorite book. My favorite is Heart of Darkness -- Conrad -- but you could collect like five and you'd be done. I think of other books like The Scarlet Letter -- sure, maybe, but that's just the story.
Moby Dick is more than that. It's a psychological drama. It's a capture of an entire industry that no longer exists. There's description of places that people haven't seen and have never been and places have been destroyed by civilization. And then there are places that people can go to, like Nantucket and New Bedford, and you can see the places that Melville referenced and get that kind of broad worldwide focus.
There are not a lot of novels where that happens.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Bonus Melville bit: Herman Melville spent part of his youth and young adulthood in the Albany area. He attended Albany Academy for a few years (in two stints), and lived for a while in Lansingburgh.
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