Treading Water with Moby Dick, and the App that Finally Helped Me Read It!

Giving Up on Moby Dick

Two years ago, I gave up on reading Moby Dick. It was an extremely well-written work, with beautiful descriptions, vivid characters, and striking scenes; it was a book of mythic magnitude, of fabled fame, of prosperous popularity, and yet – I could not get through the seventh chapter.

The sixth chapter had been entirely about describing a pulpit, which I found both vivid and boring, but I was willing to dredge through the scene of long elaborations and vague allusions in order to finally get to some action – I wanted something to happen! But when the next chapter, the fateful seventh, was entirely about a preacher giving a sermon (albeit a fiery and well-written one), I was drained of the courage to go on.

Oh Melville of the wandering pen, oh great author of unending meaning and stark analogies, why art thou so difficult to comprehend? So rambling to follow? So unending in your endless diversions?

I put down the book with every intention to take it up again, but my best intentions turned to inaction, and the book began to sag on the shelf. When my brother finally picked it up and asked if he could take it to college with him, I at last had to admit that I was not going to finish it any time soon.

Picking it Back Up

So imagine my surprise when I not only began reading it again recently, but am now finding it interesting, compelling, and easy to get through! This was not because I picked it up off the shelf, or relied on my own powers to plow through the seaweed beds of words: on the contrary, I needed a tool to help me master it, and it is this tool that I want to introduce to you today!

Allow me to introduce you to Michael Schmitt and Serial Reader

Michael Schmitt is the creator of the reading app Serial Reader. This literary app contains sundry classics which you can sign up to receive for free, and which are delivered into your inbox every day. Each ‘issue’ is about 10-20 minutes of reading, and is meant to help break up the reading process so it can be easily managed during a subway commute or lunch break. And when you finish each ‘issue’ a fun banner and confetti appear on the screen celebrating with you that you finished another segment!

The interface is beautifully compiled, easy to use, and full of wonderful books!

Check it out here.

I was so impressed with the app that I decided to interview its creator, and Michael was gracious enough to agree! He has a wonderful story, and I’m so excited to share it with you below.

Interview with Michael Schmitt

Me: What gave you the idea to begin Serial Reader, and what was the journey to make it happen?

Michael: A few years out of college I decided to revisit some of the books I had read in school but I hadn’t quite fully understood. On the top of the pile was My Antonia by Willa Cather – a book which one of my professors had broken down in tears over while reciting a passage in class. I had enjoyed the book but had clearly missed something. My teacher’s reaction took me completely by surprise. I wanted to revisit this book and others to see if I could get more out of them.

My idea was to force myself to slow down while reading: limit the amount I could read at any given moment and force myself to wait a day before continuing on. Maybe such a pace would keep me from skimming and let myself really think about the story. Rather than implement any sort of self-control, being a good nerd I went off and made a makeshift app so I could easily read daily “issues” from the book during my train commute and gave it a try.

It worked really well! I noticed so many details I had overlooked in my rushed university-days, and I found that spreading the book over more than a month let me really live with the characters and events. If you want to tear up on public transportation, I highly recommend My Antonia.

From there some friends encouraged me to release the app; so I added more books, polished it into something usable, and launched it.

Me: What is the mission of Serial Reader?

Michael: The primary mission of Serial Reader is to encourage people to read, period. I hear from folks occasionally who tell me they started reading a book in Serial Reader but then went off and downloaded the whole book elsewhere or got it from the library or whatnot because they didn’t want to wait until tomorrow for the next issue – I love that so much! If this app gives anyone a push to read a book they otherwise wouldn’t have, that makes it worthwhile for me.

Me: How has Serial Reader impacted others?

Michael: I’ve heard from teachers who have their students use the app, book clubs that try to stay on the same issue every day so they’re all in sync and don’t share spoilers, and parents who use it to read stories to their kids at night. One woman said she uses Serial Reader to read part of the King James Bible everyday; she’s on her second complete read-through within the app!

The most common feedback I receive though is that the app helped folks finally finish daunting classic works they’d been meaning to read for years – or had tried to read but failed. I think there’s an idea out there that the classics everyone ‘should’ read are too daunting or challenging for most people. Sometimes folks just need a little encouragement to find out how very untrue that is.

Me: How do you decide which books to include?

Michael: These days I rely heavily on suggestions and recommendations from users for new books to add. Folks can request books from within the app and those requests get tallied up, so if there’s a title that several people have asked for I’ll try to add that first.

Vernon Lee by John Singer Sargent

Otherwise I keep my eyes peeled for interesting books or authors. A stray mention of Vernon Lee on Twitter a few weeks ago led me to a rich vein of supernatural and horror stories, for example, and I still have a list of Atlantis-inspired stories I need to add (though one, The Lost Continent by C.J. Cutliffe Hyne, is already available in the app).

Me: Anything else you would like to say to our readers?

I hope anyone who hasn’t heard of or tried Serial Reader will give it a shot or share it with their friends and family! And if anyone has any ideas or suggestions on how to make the app even better I’d love to hear them, so please do get in touch.

Me:Finally, since you’re on the Fairy Tale Blog, I have to ask: what is your favorite classic?

Michael: I think I gave this one away early! My favorite classic is My Antonia by Willa Cather. I’m a sucker for frontier literature (just finished “The Virginian” by Owen Wister in that same vein) and Cather combines that setting with such a memorable coming-of-age story. There’s so much in it to let your mind chew on: the immensity of nature set against humankind, the importance of family and friends, the vision of an America built from people of so many unique nations and backgrounds, the inevitable tides that push and pull you from those loved ones through life. (Though I’m sure I’ve overlooked so many themes that my professor would wince.)

The passage, by the way, that my professor broke down over in class — and now impacts me in much the same way — is probably an obvious one for those who have read the book. Jim has returned to the plains after many years in the east to find Antonia both changed and not – “one of those quiet moments that clutch the heart” – and heartbreakingly she doesn’t even recognize him. “Don’t you remember me, Antonia? Have I changed so much?” Seriously, read this book if you haven’t!

Conclusion

Michael’s love of literature (and My Antonia) is infectious! I tried reading Willa Cather’s book years ago, and like Moby Dick, it was one I had a hard time getting through and finally gave up. But Michael is inspiring me, and when I finish my journey through Moby Dick, I fully intend to pick up My Antonia!

Please check out the app, and let me know in the comments below what books you have tried to read, but just found too hard to get through! What is your My Antonia?

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