When Scott McVay was in his junior year at Princeton University in the mid-1950s, a professor assigned Herman Melville’s epic novel, “Moby-Dick,” and told McVay (and probably everyone else in the class, as well), “be sure to read the sections about the whales.” McVay heeded the advice and thus began a lifelong interest in cetology — the study of whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
My memory of my first encounter with “Moby-Dick” (and more about that hyphen later) was somewhat similar. Except it was in high school in the mid-1960s, and the teacher recommended that if we felt daunted by the huge piece of reading at hand, we could always skip the chapters on the science of the whales. I heeded the advice, skipped the heavy reading, and began a lifelong inclination to take shortcuts, read Cliff Notes, and otherwise hop and skip through the rest of my formal and continuing education. I was destined to be a journalist, not a scholar.
To read or not to read those cetology chapters in Moby-Dick, I now realize, is another one of the differences between high school and college. It’s also the difference between this new quarterly review I am editing, Genesis, and most of the other publications I have written for or edited over the years.
For years I have been the reporter, writer, or editor, gleaning the knowledge from the expert, and then condensing and processing it to serve to the reader. Now I am trying to bring the primary research materials directly to the reader and then get out of the way. It’s been a nice — and challenging — change of pace.
The new publication will share some of the spotlight with Scott McVay at the launch party of his new memoir, “Strange Encounters with Artists and Scientists, Whales and Other Living Things,” next Wednesday, October 14, at 6 p.m. at Labyrinth Books at 122 Nassau Street in Princeton. Since McVay is the man who has done the heavy lifting (more than 550 pages worth!), the editor of Genesis (one-tenth the number of pages in our first three issues) should keep his words to a minimum at the party.
But I will sneak in a few words here on the genesis of Genesis. For some time I have been impressed — and slightly depressed — by the prodigious output of writers, artists, poets, and scientists in our community who never seemed to get more than a few minutes in the public spotlight. Authors talked about hunting for a venue that would let them have a reading. Poets and short story writers appearing in our annual Summer Fiction issue noted that it was practically the only game in town. Some wondered if that issue could be repeated in the winter.
Then I started noticing equally impressive output online, specifically from the Wild River Review, the literary journal started by Joy Stocke and Kim Nagy (also the publishers of McVay’s memoir). Drilling down through their website (www.wildriverreview.com) I discovered a wonderful Q&A that Nagy conducted with the owners of Labyrinth Books (the site of our launch party, in another happy coincidence). The interview was about five years old, but it was still a relevant and eloquent mission statement for an old-fashioned bookstore in the modern information age. Sure, the Q&A was available world wide on the web, but shouldn’t it get wide circulation in the bookstore’s own backyard?
The idea of launching Genesis as an insert in U.S. 1 — giving it a wide initial circulation at a sustainable cost — was the result of some creative brainstorming by (and support of) my partners, Jamie Griswold and Tom Valeri.
For me it’s been a chance to re-create the college experience that I short-changed in favor of 40 and 50-hour work weeks on the student newspaper. When Princeton mathematician John Conway gave his famous lectures on his “free will theorem” in 2009, I was way too busy to attend. But now I have had a chance to dig into Siobhan Roberts’ scintillating new biography of Conway, “Genius at Play,” excerpted in the fall issue of Genesis. Maybe I will find the time to read Roberts’ work all the way through.
Will I ever find time to go back and read the “whale stuff” in Moby-Dick? I don’t know. But I know about that hyphen: Ask me at the party.