Title: Moby Dick
Posted: March 10, 2010 (08:01 PM)
I finished reading Herman Melville's Moby Dick today, after about a month of reading, or one and one third library loan periods, and I feel like trying to write something about it with the speech to text software I recently purchased, Mac Speech Dictate. As much for practice as for expression.
Writing anything of length this way is a new and somehow unusual experience, which takes me out of the transparent combination of inner world and unconscious typing I normally associate with writing. I had been worried before I tried this that it would be really difficult or unsatisfying, but as with any new task, it is foolish to expect that you can master it instantly. The effectiveness of the software in understanding my dictation has already far exceeded my expectations. So the challenge really lies in just adapting to this new way of thinking and performing writing. My goal is not to completely replace all typing, but certainly to replace large blocks of typing, like this one, to free up some of the RSI-depleted resources of my hands and arms so they can be better distributed amongst all the tasks I need and want to perform. While I can do a lot of editing by voice (which is already pretty impressive), for finer points, I tap a key here or there or reach for the mouse, because it's easier. For overall, final or macroscopic editing, I still do it by typing/mousing, which is fine. I just want to reduce initial typing workloads.
Of various renowned books I've read over the past few months, including Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar', Hermann Hesse's 'Steppenwolf' and Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment', I found Moby Dick to be the most conspicuously great. Or perhaps just the one I enjoyed most. Or a bit of both.
This is not to say it was an easy read. The vocabulary is endlessly testing, the structure unlike that of any modern novel I would typically read, and the whizzing-over-my-head biblical references come thick and fast. I quickly grew weary of ducking down to the explanatory footnotes in this critical edition (not that they are anywhere near as painful to read as those accompanying a Shakespearean text) and so dispensed with them, choosing to gather broad, intuitive meanings from the context instead of picking over individual words.
The plot and action of the novel concerning the obsessed captain Ahab's hunt for the great white whale, Moby Dick, as frequently seen through the eyes of the newcomer aboard his vessel, Ishmael, makes up probably less than half the novel's length. And that half is not delivered consecutively. After a meandering introduction which gets Ishmael onto the boat, the book becomes a lusty treatise on all aspects of the operation of whaling, whether technical, aesthetic or spiritual. During the treatise, there occurs no progression of the here-and-now plot, but the details and observations are marvellous. Many of the anecdotes are bizarre and surprising, like the one about the whaler who falls overboard into the bloody, open-topped corpse of a whale, almost drowning in its silky interior.
The crush of details almost wearied me as I thought of the amount of research which must have gone into creating them. It reminded me again of my broad feeling that I would rather make stuff up than have to do research. But this isn't entirely true – in retrospect, I'm aware that I've done tons of research to verify tiny details in fiction or games or comics that I've created in the past. I think this feeling has more to do with an initial position. That is, I would not consciously choose to make a fiction about a topic if I had the impression that the research required would be boring or too much work. Yet having started on some topic I have assessed as being 'safe' in this regard, I usually find that my obsessive or perfectionist tendencies will drive me to over-research things I probably know enough about already, anyway, on top of the ones I don't. I can see recent evidence of this behaviour just by glancing at my computer desktop, where the presence of some online chap's PDF thesis on uniform design for young people, which I came across during a research episode, reminds me that I went above and beyond the call of duty while settling upon a few details in the school-set horror game I'm programming.
But back to Moby Dick... the book's portrayal of the damage wrought by hubris and obsession is impressive. And a cool surprise is that the final action sequence extends right up until the second last page. I can tell that I will remember much of the experience of reading this novel, whereas details of the recently read Crime and Punishment are already sketchy in my mind. What I like most about jumping around different periods of books in my reading are the demonstrations of ways to write and to do things which would never have come to me if I only read in one place.
Posted: March 10, 2010 (09:57 PM)
You should now go read Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." That, combined with Moby Dick, will blow your mind.
Posted: March 11, 2010 (01:28 AM)
It's been years since I tried to read Moby Dick, and I'm aware that the last time I tried I was much too young to get anything out of it. I might have to give it another go.
The software that you've acquired sounds interesting. I've considered looking into something like that myself, given the volume of writing that I do (or would like to do). Perhaps someday I will.
Posted: March 11, 2010 (07:50 PM)
I can certainly recommend it, HG. It's really neat when you enter some huge block of text, like my Moby Dick spiel, and can be on your feet the whole time if you wish, and realise after that you barely typed anything.
The software for a PC is called Dragon. The Dragon speech engine is used in Mac speech dictate, which I'm using to dictate this to you now. The Dragon people recently bought the company making the Mac version, and in terms of the feature shell, the Mac version is the one which has to catch up.
When you first train the software to your voice, the program educates you in the process about what is actually going on behind the scenes. This in itself is pretty fascinating, and too long to go into here.
If you ever do buy such software, I definitely recommend using a Bluetooth headset. Then you can do neat stuff like, for instance, go through a box of video games, reading each title aloud and having the computer make a list for you of the box's contents without you having to be tethered to the computer at the time. Of course, video game titles often have weird capitalisation, punctuation and made up words in them, so it can take a fair bit of tweaking and editing en route as you dictate them... But I recently did this list making activity with some of my old Apple II games.
Posted: March 12, 2010 (03:07 PM)
Thanks for the information. Perhaps I shall begin writing reviews on the way to work! Wouldn't that be spiffy?
Posted: March 12, 2010 (06:19 PM)
It requires a reasonably quiet environment :) Plus you'd be surprised at what an effort it can be to speak with 100% articulation and eloquence the whole time. If you get mumbly it can start misunderstanding you more frequently.