Rewriting Melville

When I was in 8th grade, I was asked to write a book report on a novel by a famous American author. Mrs. Bennett took the class to the library and instructed us to spend the period searching for a book that we would read and then use to write our reports. Book reports, by the way, are stupid.

Even as a teacher today, I can attest to this fact. Is there a better way to ruin the excitement of a book? Asking a kid to write a book report is like taking the green pepper that you hope your child will learn to love and dipping it in paint thinner.


Aware of the stupidity of the book report at an early age, I made every effort to avoid the process. When we arrived in the library, I immediately grabbed a stool and began searching the top rows for any novel by a famous American author. I reasoned that books shelved high enough to require a stool to access were likely read less often. My goal was to find a book that hadn’t been touched in years.

Eventually I find just such a book. Omoo by Herman Melville. Thanks to the cards that were still tucked inside the covers of books in those days, I was able to see the date that this book was last taken out by a student or teacher:

More than nine years ago.

It looked as if it had been sitting up there for a while as well. Covered in dust, smelling of must, and creaking when I opened it for the first time. I took the book to Mrs. Bennett for approval, and she declared it to be a fine choice. “I’ve never read that one before,” she said and expressed anticipation in reading about it in my report.

Just what I had wanted.

Rather than reading the book, I spent the next two weeks inventing the plot, characters, and theme of this book and writing a report about my musings. I skimmed the first chapter for character names, but otherwise the entire report reflected my personal version of Omoo, complete with a scathing critique of my story.

My grade: A

I still have the paper.

In order to ensure that I would not be discovered, I kept the book in my possession for three full months after receiving my grade, telling the librarian that I had lost it.  Prior to the Internet, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Mrs. Bennett to locate another copy of a relatively unknown novel by the great writer. Had she been so inclined, she might have taken a trip to local libraries and book stores in hopes of finding a copy, but I doubted that she would go through the trouble. Had she asked to see the book, I planned to tell her that I had lost it.

Paying $20 to the library to ensure the sanctity of my excellent grade would have been well worth it.

Of course, Mrs. Bennett never asked for the book, and three months after my grade had been posted, the book was finally returned to its top shelf.

Wouldn’t it be great to see if it has been taken out by anyone since that day?

I have still not read Omoo, nor have I read Typee, the first in what turns out to be a Melville trilogy (Omoo is the second of the three). But I may get around to reading it someday. I would love to spend a week reading Omoo and comparing my story to that of Melville.

I often wonder which one was better.