Thoughts on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and Innocence

I’ve just re-read my notes on Billy Budd and they’re so good I can see why I liked the book so much: the quotes I lifted from it, the language Melville uses, and the way he himself seems to fall in love with his character, Billy Budd.

It’s a short little book and it was difficult for me to read because it is so dense and poetic, but also archaic. I read four pages or so a day, and on at least two occasions I understood so little of what I read that the next day I had to re-read those pages, and usually that did actually help.

Part of why I liked it is that I love innocence very much, and Melville seems to love it even more. Billy Budd is, of course, very much about innocence. In fact Melville doesn’t seem to shut up about it.

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About Reading

Last year I spent a summer with a friend in a small coastal town in the United States of America. The house we were staying in had a lovely little library of its own, while outside, everywhere we went we found little free library boxes, and every Monday morning the local library in town had a book sale with a very nice selection of books for very sweet prices. The town even had a sprawling, excellently stocked, second-hand bookstore. Go small-town America!

Having spent most of my life in Amsterdam and New York City, from which almost all second-hand bookstores have disappeared, where the free book boxes are usually empty and libraries have become places that are, for various reasons, loud and/or stinky, this was book heaven. It felt almost as good to me as my grandmother’s second-hand bookstore in Noord-Holland had, where, as a child, I spent lots of quiet time reading in corners on the cool and smooth granite floor, with my grandmother’s dog Borretje curled up next to me. I loved books.

After my father died, I stopped reading. And even when I eventually started again, reading never felt like the home it used to. Not even when I found my Big Love book, the book of my heart, Jacob Israel de Haan’s Pijpelijntjes, did reading feel like home the way it once did.

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The little cafe across the street (one of the only ones on our block that’s not a chain) has died, after 20 years in business. Their loyal customers came all summer and fall, but it wasn’t enough to help them make it through this wretched pandemic. I feel so sad for them

Horsies at the 711

We got lucky because we had just been looking out the window and were sitting up against the radiator, talking and trying to get warm when we heard the hooves. It’s a distinct sound that always makes us leap up and run to the window, but now we were already there.

I opened the window and leaned out, yelling down at them: I love you!

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Writing in English

I love stories, late at night
in a warm and comfortable bed or
while sitting in my window with the sun on my face.

I don’t write in English very often
but occasionally I do.
It’s an experience similar to looking at something
through someone else’s eye.
There are no words I can spit out without
second thought, no conventions to build on:
I have to carefully consider what I want
to say and test the meaning of each word, separately and in
different contexts to see if it’ll suit my purposes.
I have to look at something as thought it is
new and figure out
again what it means to me.

Pictures are stories I haven’t
written down and games
are stories you can play with.