What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Billy Budd
by Herman Melville

Field-Tested by Keith Phipps

in Springfield, Ohio

In the summer of 1992, I decide not to go home. I'd just finished my freshman year at Wittenberg University, and rather than move back into my parents' house, I opted for a part-time job in the admissions office and an empty room in a virtually abandoned dorm.

Great plan except for one small problem: Campus life at Wittenberg, a small, Lutheran, liberal arts school, was hardly thrilling in the best of times; during the summer months it's the kind of place where you could die in your room, and it would take days for someone to notice (that's not a joke; it happened two floors down from me). I had one friend who joined me for Seinfeld and the occasional Domino's pizza. Beyond that, I was alone, missing someone a thousand miles away who wasn't coming back for sophomore year, and listening to The Smiths too much.

And there were books: Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, William S. Burroughs' Nova Express, issues of Dave Sim's Cerebus, and most importantly for a fervent English major coming off his first comp lit class, The Norton Anthology Of Word Literature, Vol. 2. “There's more to life than books, you know,” went the chorus of one of The Smiths' songs, “but not much more.”

I agreed. So I read all summer, rarely leaving my dorm room when not required, spending long days inside wasting-from a certain perspective-my youth. I don't think I'd do it much differently. I certainly wouldn't trade the afternoon I hit Melville's Billy Budd in the Norton collection, consuming it in one sitting. Reading Billy Budd for the first time feels, as with the best of Melville, like finally stumbling on some grand truth, then realizing it's just another mystery. It's a simple story that defies easy interpretation, tangling up those who would try with characters who refuse to fully reveal themselves, symbolism that's never quite what it seems, elusive sexuality, religious imagery, and some of the saddest last words ever put to page.

There are ways to find out how the world works without going outside. But there is more to life than books, you know, and now I'm married to a wonderful woman who reminds me of this by making me leave the house on a regular basis. Still, if I could take anything back from my 1992 self it wouldn't be the hairline or the flat stomach. It would be those endless hours when nothing to do could be an end to itself.

Keith Phipps is the editor of The AV Club, the entertainment section of The Onion.

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