I’ve been reading Jennifer Habel’s and Chris Bachelder’s book Dayswork. Actually, dipping into it, then falling away; losing interest for a while. then coming back. The episodic approach to reading works quite well for a book, written during the Covid pandemic, in an aphoristic format. Many of its passages could be tweets. The book has the feel of something written in a makeshift desk–maybe from a closet–when the writer is supposed to be doing something else (I don’t know, exactly, what the writing process was for Dayswork). But it also reads like a product of the distracted modern condition of reading. Judging by how active even many serious writers have been on X/Twitter over the past decade, I suspect that distraction is also the predominant condition of writing today.1

The waves of “Melville revival” that brought him into the American canon have always had an obsessive devotion to the historical Melville; the quotidian, real person: adventurous, flawed, idiosyncratic. Dayswork contributes to the cult of the author. While the book does use Melville’s literary work as an anchor, it spends just as much time pecking at the minutia of the author’s life. The book spends a lot of time introspecting about other figures connected to Melville, some of them people he knew (his wife Lizze Shaw, daughters Elizabeth and Frances) and others later interpreters or admirers, like Elizabeth Hardiwick. One of the most frequently mentioned figures, “The Biographer,” is still commenting on Melville as of early 2024. The Biographer remains unnamed until the book’s end. He is Herschel Parker, a retired English professor and Melville scholar from the University of Delaware. Author of not just a Melville biography, but of a Melville meta-biography. And, most relevant to Dayswork, he also maintains an active blog in which–guess who?–Melville comes up a lot.

As a character, Parker does not come off well in the book. After it was published he responded with obvious annoyance. Dayswork is above all a book of personalities, and I have a few thoughts about its relationship to personas like Parker. Are its antagonisms really any different than authors in the pre-internet era, inserting gossip about contemporaries into their books? Writers have included one another in fictionalized form, walking all the way up to libel and beyond, since before mass printing began. But there is a sense of detachment in how the authors speak about Parker, as if what they say about him is not so much directed at him–as with a debate or conversation–as it is whispered about him. Take this episode in Chapter 6

On the morning of the wedding Melville took a walk on the Common.

Or, Herman sallied out early in the forenoon for his last vagabondizing as an unmarried man,” in the words of the Biographer.

Whose blog entry for today, I see, reports a frustrating transaction with Netflix:

He ordered the BBC’s Cymbeline starring Helen Mirren, but instead received a “hyper-violent” version from 2015 featuring dirty cops and a biker gang.

“Sealed it up and sent it back.”

Which must mean, my husband pointed out, that the Biographer still has a DVD subscription to Netflix.

Not wanting to pay to access the movie through Amazon Prime, he ordered a copy on eBay, asking the seller to make sure it wasn’t the violent biker version.

For days, according to his blog, the Biographer has been yearning to listen to the Act V recognition scene in the BBC version of Cymbeline.

Earlier this year he wrote that while doing exercises in the middle of the night he’d been listening to film adaptations of Shakespeare, including some other version of Cymbeline—

“Nothing more consoling than Act 5 over and over.”

Let this be an example to anyone who posts the trivial ups-and-downs of everyday life to the internet–or a blog :). Parker is someone who has elected to put himself on display. One difference between an old-school blog like Parker’s and modern social media is that the following on a blog is harder to see. From the inside of a blog, there is always a little bit of a sense of talking to oneself. From the outside–when you comb through the archives of someone’s thoughts, especially the old ones–there is always a little bit of a voyeuristic quality, like looking at someone’s private papers or files.

But voyeurism has not gone away with modern social media, which has–if nothing else–lowered the bar for two-way participation on the internet. Still, to be online is to be hit with far more “content” than one’s capacity to produce it. This makes “lurking,” a term that refers to passive reading of old-school internet message boards, into the default online condition. When reading Dayswork, it is hard to get past the sense that the authors are very online, lurking around their subject(s). I don’t even know if they would dispute this claim. Maybe it is because of the pandemic, which made both acquaintances and strangers feel far away for a while, that the book feels like it is gossiping about all of its subjects–even Melville. In Dayswork, like the pandemic, being online is a condition that is endured. The short-form writing–the distracted writing–that thrives on the contemporary web is well-suited to this gossip. Even if they are writing about a master of American long prose, one of Dayswork’s accomplishments is to bring a tweet-sized version of Melville into view–a Melville that is both viable to and relevant within the distraction economy.

  1. Contemporary writers are, after all, both encouraged or tempted to be online all the time.

Tags herman_melville literature contemporary aphorism