American Idol starts its 250th season tonight, beginning as usual with a lineup of dreadful aspiring singers who haven't a clue as to how dreadful they truly sound. For many people (including my wife), it's a trainwreck they can't keep their eyes off. Young men and women audition before the judges, hoping for a spot on the show, and four times out of five they're told (to their shock and disbelief) that they don't have a wisp of talent.
If you can tolerate gotcha TV, this display does contain some psychological interest. The complete lack of connection between how some people sound and how they think they sound raises intriguing questions about self-perception. It's hard to believe, but apparently true, that many people whose singing sounds like howling cats are nevertheless convinced they actually rival Judy Garland or [insert current pop singer of your choice].
Every January, I wonder if Moby-Dick marathon readers are similarly deluded. It has to be said that some readers are really quite bad, God bless them. They mean well; they're genuine Melville fans; they do the best they can. But no matter who you are, your best in certain endeavors just isn't very good. Indeed, your absolute best might be among the worst.
Do bad readers know they're bad? No one in the marathon audience ever gives any indication if someone's performance is less than stellar. Some bad readers do seem aware of the effect they're having, since I've seen a few gasp with relief when they're done, as if they'd just finished hacking a path through bamboo with a dull machete. If someone has such self-awareness, I can only respect her the more, even though my enjoyment is lessened. It's one thing for a person who reads out loud frequently and fluently to stand in front of a crowd of strangers and presume to read Moby-Dick to them. It's quite another thing for someone who knows he's a halting, stumbling reader to nonetheless risk humiliating himself in order to do his duty by Melville and the marathon.