Caring for Words Book Club: Read Well


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The Spectrum blog book club is discussing Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009), by Marilyn McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at UC Davis and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. McEntyre was the keynote speaker for the meetings of the Adventist English Association in June 2013. Our book club discussion will run from March through the end of May, with a week devoted to each of the chapters. A different writer is scheduled to introduce each chapter, and we invite you to join in the discussion. - Scott Moncrieff

Marilyn McEntyre reminds us at the beginning of “Read Well” that good writers teach us how to navigate difficult texts: “If we continue to seek out worthwhile writers, we find that each one of them has something to teach us about how to read” (65). Considering the narrators of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, she also acknowledges that writers often teach us by using unreliable narrators, narrators who “remind us that every tale we hear is mediated by a teller whose identity and purposes are partly veiled, whose disclosures may be deceptions, and whose gifts can be received only if we’re willing to leave home ground and follow them on faith into what may turn out to be the ‘heart of darkness’” (77).

Writers teach us to see the world that is hidden, the world that we miss. They make it harder for us to ignore such things as the processes of capitalism, the processes, as McEntyre observes in “Tell the Truth,” “by which things [that] come to us are often deliberately hidden or left unmentioned so as not to draw attention to the less savory aspects of process like pollution, abusive labor practices, fuel consumption, dangerous pesticides, unfair treatment of animals, insider trading” (46). Writers invite us to see these processes, to read between the lines, to understand the subtext.

As McEntyre demonstrates, one of the great reading teachers is Herman Melville, and she invites us to consider the opening sentence of the first chapter of Moby-Dick: “Think, for instance, of one of the most famous opening sentences in American literature: ‘Call me Ishmael.’ That curious invitation situates us in a relationship, in a tradition, in a mood. The name is resonant with biblical reference, antiquity, and suggestion” (75).

McEntyre’s discussion of Moby-Dick and her commitment to stewardship invite us to consider the beginning of the novel. While Melville’s story begins with the famous sentence “Call me Ishmael,” the novel begins with two curious sections, Etymology and Extracts, which illustrate from the outset of the novel that stewardship of language and stewardship of the earth are inextricable.

The Etymology is “Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School,” and the Extracts are “Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian.” The narrator cavalierly dismisses the sub-sub-librarian’s quotations, but Melville, of course, encourages us to pay careful attention: “It will be seen that this mere painstaking burrower and grubworm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane. Therefore you must not, in every case at least, take the higgledy-piggledy whale statements, however authentic, in these extracts, for veritable gospel cetology.”

The first five extracts, or quotations, come from the Old Testament and establish a direct relationship between the story of the whale and the tradition of Christianity. The first seems matter of fact, if not celebratory: “‘And God created great whales.’—Genesis.” The second suggests awe: “‘Leviathan maketh a path to shine after him; / One would think the deep to be hoary.’—Job.” But the fifth quotation, from Isaiah, signals a potential problem for the whale:

"‘In that day, the Lord with his sore, and great, and strong sword, shall punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.’” The next quotation is a historical one from “Holland’s Plutarch’s Morals” and shows the potential cost of Isaiah’s depiction. Melville suggests in the ordering of his quotations that as soon as God punishes the leviathan in the Bible, people think they are justified in deeming the whale a “monster.”: “And what thing soever besides cometh within the chaos of this monster’s mouth, be it beast, boat, or stone, down it goes all incontinently that foul great swallow of his, and perisheth in the bottomless gulf of his paunch.” And once humans deem the whale “foul,” they also think they are justified in destroying it—especially when destroying it brings them great financial gain. An account of humans’ destruction of the whale comes just a few quotations later: “‘He visited this country also with a view of catching horse-whales, which had bones of very great value for their teeth, of which he brought some to the king. * * * The best whales were catched in his own country, of which some were forty-eight, some fifty yards long. He said that he was one of six who had killed sixty in two days.’—Other or Octher’s Verbal Narrative Taken Down from his Mouth by King Alfred. A.D. 890.”

This collection of biblical references suggests that Christianity has all too often been one of the processes encouraging the “unfair treatment of animals.” But the collection also gives Christians a choice. After all, God compares himself to the leviathan in Job and celebrates its majesty, even if Isaiah portrays God as destroying the leviathan. I am hesitant, though, to regard the mere celebration of the whale’s majesty as a solution, for in the hands of Melville, even Job’s depiction of the leviathan appears potentially problematic. Job 41:1 asks, “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?” The implied answer is an assured “No,” but as Moby-Dick indicates, humanity seems to have taken the question as a dare. Still, however, Melville shows that our portrayal of things affects our treatment of them and that we can never be too careful in our use of language.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies: Schedule Planner

February 24 Why Worry About Words?Scott Moncrieff, Andrews UniversityMarch 3 Strategy 1: Love WordsBrooke Holland, Collegedale AcademyMarch 10 Strategy 2: Tell the TruthBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 17 Strategy 3: Don’t Tolerate LiesBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 24 Strategy 4: Read WellKellie Bond, Walla Walla UniversityMarch 31 Strategy 5: Stay in ConversationMary Christian, Indiana UniversityApril 7 Strategy 6: Share StoriesJeanette Bryson, Andrews UniversityApril 14 Strategy 7: Love the Long SentenceEmily McArthur, University of California, RiversideApril 21 Strategy 8: Practice PoetryCraig van Rooyen, San Luis Obispo, CaliforniaApril 28 Strategy 9: Attend to TranslationSarah Fusté, Berrien Springs, MichiganMay 5 Strategy 10: PlayJustina Clayburn, Andrews UniversityMay 12 Strategy 11: PrayTBDMay 19 Strategy 12: Cherish SilenceKristin Denslow, University of Florida


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5891