I’m taking an American Gothic literature class this semester, and the book we’re currently reading is (dun, dun, dun) Melville’s Moby Dick. Good or bad, people have a lot to say about this book. I mean, my professor sure does. While I’ve been reading and listening to his lectures, I can’t help but keep thinking about this: the enormous amount of opinions about this book. Why this book? Why was Moby Dick chosen to play such a significant role in every English student’s life? It wasn’t even that popular until someone resurrected it after World War I. You could say it’s because Melville was a great writer, with great ideas and a great story; or that it was just a coincidence, a little fluke. We’re not here to answer that question, though.
What I’m hung up on is the terrifying feat I’m staring down my nose at: making an Original Thought. Specifically, making an Original Thought about a book that has been written about and talked about and read by more people than I’d like to think about. How am I, a baby freshman English Major, expected to have a novel idea about a book like that?
It’s not like I can’t form any opinions at all. I’ve definitely made a few while reading some of the more questionable chapters. But if you were to ask me, seriously, what I thought about the legend that is Moby Dick, I’d probably try to change the subject, or just regurgitate whatever much more intellectual thing my professor told me.
This struggle affects my reading, too. I try to dig into the words and understand what Melville’s saying, but a little voice in my head tells me that I’ll never actually be able to decipher it. If truly understanding a book feels like looking through glass, reading Moby Dick feels like trying to see through the little pores in concrete.
Now, this past Thursday I didn’t have much homework (other than to read Moby Dick, which I naturally procrastinated for), so I decided to watch a movie. Surfing through Netflix, I stumbled across Pan’s Labyrinth, the Guillermo del Toro movie. I didn’t know much about it; I only recognized the title and knew it was in Spanish. So I decided to watch it.
I was amazed by how much I was getting out of the movie as I was watching it. All the small parallels and symbols were crystal clear to me, and I felt like I noticed every little detail. After struggling through Moby Dick for a week and a half, I couldn’t believe how much I was understanding this movie. Was it because it was simpler than Moby Dick? I don’t think so. Del Toro is a fantastic storyteller, and isn’t afraid to make something with multiple possible meanings, which was clear to me when watching the movie.
So why could I understand Pan’s Labyrinth more than I could understand Moby Dick? Should I ditch my English degree and switch to being a Film Studies major? No, of course not. I believe that the real reason I could get Pan’s Labyrinth so much easier is because I had no previous knowledge of it. I didn’t know anyone else’s opinion of the movie. I hadn’t looked it up online beforehand to see the Rotten Tomatoes score or the critic reviews (though I did look after). There was no pressure to come up with an Original Thought, because for me, all my thoughts were original; I didn’t have any background knowledge at all.
While it’s great to go into something without knowing anything about it so as to avoid any pressure for originality, it’s not usually possible, especially now, when it’s so easy to look things up. But every so often, we get to read or watch something with completely new eyes. And it helps us know, when we need to read books we feel we know everything about (like Moby Dick), that we are capable of forming opinions and having unique and interesting thoughts about things. We can think critically and confidently about things that have already been thought about for decades. So never fear, English majors! We can have opinions, too!