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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

‘Billy Budd’ rekindles my love for good fiction

My New Year’s resolution to read more hit an immediate speed bump when I decided it was time to read “Billy Budd, Sailor,” Herman Melville’s unfinished novella.

“How hard will this be?” I thought to myself. “It’s a novella!”

My expectations for “Billy Budd” were quite high: I read “Moby Dick” about five years ago and thought it was the greatest book ever. And I’m not being hyperbolic — I’m hard-pressed to think of a better book. Not that I’ve read every book, mind you. I still haven’t read “The Brothers Karamazov” or anything by Proust. But I have read “War and Peace,” “Crime and Punishment” and “Anna Karenina,” and I think “Moby Dick” is the superior work.

Of course, reading “Moby Dick” is no small task.

It took me about six months to get through “Moby Dick,” and I celebrated this accomplishment by reading lots of short and easy books. I like literary challenges, but I needed a break after “Moby Dick.” (I took similar breaks after “War and Peace” and “V” by Thomas Pynchon.)

Beautiful but dense

And at some point, I forgot how difficult “Moby Dick” was, which allowed me to imagine that “Billy Budd” was the sort of thing I could breeze through in a single night, much like a Stephen King novel or a collection of short stories by J.D. Salinger.

The first sentences of “Billy Budd” disabused me of this notion.

“In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant sailors in holiday attire, ashore on liberty,” Melville writes. “In certain instances they would flank, or like a bodyguard quite surround, some superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation.”

Having now read these sentences four or five times, I can see that they are quite lovely — beautiful and precise, evoking the rough-and-tumble camaraderie of sailors while also suggesting a higher, more spiritual dimension to their tale. But I found them tough to get through, especially after reading contemporary works such as Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel “Freedom” and the new Richard Russo memoir “Elsewhere.”

Melville’s writing comes from a much different time and place, and understanding it required that I slow down and immerse myself in his dense and occasionally ponderous prose.

For a long time, I regarded “Billy Budd” as a disappointment, and I struggled to read more than a page at a time. But then tragedy struck: The pure-hearted sailor Billy Budd kills the ship’s master-at-arms, who has falsely accused Billy Budd of conspiracy to mutiny. A court martial is convened, and Budd is found guilty, despite the widespread belief that the master-at-arms was lying, and Billy Budd is a good and decent person. Not long after, Budd is hanged.

Once the murder occurred, I was riveted.

Perplexing questions

Not just by the plot and the characters, or even the masterful writing, but by the questions and ideas raised by “Billy Budd.” Was Billy Budd a Christ figure? Was the master-at-arms Judas? Was Melville suggesting that blind obedience to rules and authority leads to injustice and moral failure? Melville doesn’t make it easy to answer these questions, and I find myself wrestling with them even now. Which I suspect is the mark of a great book.

Great books are rare.

I recently swung by a local bookstore to buy a gift, and found myself dismissing nearly every work of fiction as I wandered the aisles. Some of the books were simply inappropriate — I love Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel “Atonement,” but wasn’t sure about buying it for a teenager. And other books, such as “Life of Pi,” I just didn’t love or even like enough to buy for another person. I was perplexed. I love fiction, and yet at that moment I felt extremely disappointed with almost every novel I had read in the past two or three years.

Reading “Billy Budd” helped me recover from this malaise.

It might not be as great as “Moby Dick,” but then what is? Frankly, it seems churlish to complain about a book simply because it’s not as great as the greatest book ever. “Billy Budd” reminded me of the pleasures to be found in wrestling with a difficult text, of the greater truths revealed in stories and myths. It reminded me why I love to read fiction, and why I continue to do so.

The truth is, I can be hard on fiction.

My friend Adam often makes fun of the ratings I give books on the website Goodreads, where members can show their friends what they’re reading and write reviews. “I can’t believe you gave ‘War and Peace’ four stars,” he said. “Don’t you think that’s a five-star book?”

“I did until the last 150 pages,” I said. “Until all that philosophy at the end.”

Four stars or five?

After wrapping up “Billy Budd,” I went on Goodreads and rated it. I gave it four stars. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to give it five stars, mainly because of its extremely slow start.

Though perhaps I should reconsider, since it made me rediscover my love of reading, and my belief in the greatness of fiction.

“Moby Dick,” for the record, is a five-star book.

Sara Foss is a Gazette reporter. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at

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February 19, 2013
5:39 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

Sara - I share your fascination with Billy Budd. I'd like to recommend the film made of it made long ago: Peter Ustinov as Vere (he also directed it)' Robert Ryan as a riveting Claggart and young Terence Stamp as Budd. I used the film for years in a Philosophy course to explore some ethical topics. Best.

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