The Moby Dick Variations
May 25, 2014 1:03 PM   Subscribe

Where does one novel end and another one begin? One day not too long ago, I was thinking about this as I considered what sort of message to send next to my little email list. I decided to do a little research. Gather just a bit of data.
My list is comprised of a few thousand readers, the curious kind. Obviously, this is not a scientific sample… but to plumb the depths of a Branch Library of Babel, a scientific sample is the last thing you want.

I asked these readers to consider several variations of Moby-Dick like the ones in Garrity’s story. I’ll present those variations here so you can quickly test your own intuition. Here’s what I wrote to the list:

Broadly, would it be fair to call this new text by the same title? If you read the original, and a friend read the transformation, would you feel that you’d both read the same book?
Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel, By Shaenon K. Garrity
posted by the man of twists and turns (20 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I kind of love this, even though I don't fully understand it.
posted by the_royal_we at 1:10 PM on May 25, 2014

There are other stories for which the ending might feel arbitrary, even superfluous, but for which an added sex scene would be transformative indeed. (Winnie the Pooh, perhaps?)

This guy, jeez.
posted by carsonb at 1:30 PM on May 25, 2014

Would it still be the same book if you used Google AdWords to rename the characters?
posted by Phssthpok at 2:34 PM on May 25, 2014

This is great.

(To be a pedant, the library of Babel is not infinite in size as the story seems to say. Unfeasibly large, my God yes, but not "a sphere of infinite diameter")
posted by Segundus at 2:40 PM on May 25, 2014

If we were to burn all extant copies of Moby-Dick and then rewrite the story from memory… 33% of respondents told me that would be the same novel!
In other words, 33% of respondents are idiots.
posted by languagehat at 2:41 PM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

In light of recent events, I have been giving a lot of thought to the nature of metafilter and how dramatically different it is from most of the rest of the internet - where rather than be enlightened, I would be derided for *gasp*, not knowing something. The prospect of losing such a valuable place where ideas are discussed in an adult, informative way makes me very, very sad.
Thank you, b1r0t, for giving me a map to start exploring something I didn't know, and doing it in a helpful rather than derisive or condescending way.
My husband has just discovered this place, and he is just now catching on to something I have known for a long time - this place is unique and special and worth preserving.
posted by the_royal_we at 2:45 PM on May 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

33% of respondents told me that would be the same novel!

My guess is that these people misunderstood the question and assumed that 'rewrote it from memory' meant 'rewrote it word for word'.
posted by Segundus at 2:55 PM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure why "add a sex scene" is only at 31% "That's Moby." Moby Dick already has a sex scene, and it's not Ishmael/Queequeg.

There's a scene where a group of sailors gather around a barrel to squeeze sperm. The barrel is full of sperm. They run their hands through it, letting it slide through their fingers. By accident (though it happens far too often to call it an accident) they clasp hands. They squeeze each other, fingers slippery with sperm. The experience is described as blissful and overwhelmingly joyful.

Even assuming it's only animal sperm in the barrel, it's hard to see this amount of joy at stroking sperm together as being anything other than sexual.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:06 PM on May 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

In other words, 33% of respondents are idiots.

And/or savants.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 3:26 PM on May 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Every single word has been changed.

It should be fairly obvious from the book titles in that photo that it's called "Penumbra" both in English and Norwegian, so clearly some words are the same, but maybe I'm just being nitpicky.
posted by effbot at 3:52 PM on May 25, 2014

Christ, what a Dick.
posted by chavenet at 4:09 PM on May 25, 2014

Would it still be the same book if you used Google AdWords to rename the characters?

Call me crazy but I really think "quick feedback from random strangers" is a terrible basis for any form of art.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 4:45 PM on May 25, 2014

> My guess is that these people misunderstood the question and assumed that 'rewrote it from memory' meant 'rewrote it word for word'.

Ah, that makes sense. OK, I withdraw the idiocy charge.
posted by languagehat at 4:59 PM on May 25, 2014


iirc, The Library Of Babel narrator's theory is that the library is infinite, and that the evident disorder of the shelves is infinitely repeated, thus becoming Order.
posted by thelonius at 5:52 PM on May 25, 2014

There's a discussion of the size here. Vastly bigger than the observable universe; the number of atoms in the universe is infinitesimal compared to the number of books. Not infinite, but in fairness we could probably get by with it until a truly infinite library came along.
posted by Segundus at 10:22 PM on May 25, 2014

Languagehat wrote: In other words, 33% of respondents are idiots.

Well, that was my answer too. There are just so many books which we only have as second-, third- or fourth-hand versions. Some of them were originally oral, but others are rewritings or translations or paraphrases of what the author originally wrote. And we still say that we "have" the book, even though what we now possess is merely the a memory of an imprint of the book's reflection.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:24 PM on May 25, 2014

I am reminded of The Lost Books Of The Odyssey.
posted by grobstein at 9:34 AM on May 26, 2014

justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow, you're aware that the sperm referred to in Chapter 94 is actually spermaceti, right? Not being facetious, just checking. I don't know how much contemporary usage would lend itself to that sort of double entendre, though -- for that you'd have to ask a Melville scholar.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 8:54 PM on May 27, 2014

fwiw, spermaceti is so named because of its resemblance to semen. And Melville rhapsodizes about it like so:

"Moreover, as that of Heidelburgh was always replenished with the most excellent of the wines of the Rhenish valleys, so the tun of the whale contains by far the most precious of all his oily vintages; namely, the highly-prized spermaceti, in its absolutely pure, limpid, and odoriferous state. Nor is this precious substance found unalloyed in any other part of the creature. Though in life it remains perfectly fluid, yet, upon exposure to the air, after death, it soon begins to concrete; sending forth beautiful crystalline shoots, as when the first thin delicate ice is just forming in water. A large whale’s case generally yields about five hundred gallons of sperm, though from unavoidable circumstances, considerable of it is spilled, leaks, and dribbles away, or is otherwise irrevocably lost in the ticklish business of securing what you can.

I know not with what fine and costly material the Heidelburgh Tun was coated within, but in superlative richness that coating could not possibly have compared with the silken pearl-colored membrane, like the lining of a fine pelisse, forming the inner surface of the Sperm Whale’s case."

The Squeeze of the Hand chapter is followed by an elaborate pun about whale foreskin. It's pretty safe to assume Melville knew what he was up to here. (I'm not a Melville scholar though, and I'm willing, if reluctant, to be proved wrong)
posted by libraritarian at 12:38 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

(also, yes, this is great)
posted by libraritarian at 12:40 PM on May 28, 2014

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