Years ago, when I decided to be a writer, I figured I should go back and read the classics I’d managed to dodge in school. And along the way reread the ones I’d enjoyed. While Heraclitus said it’s impossible to step into the same river twice, as a river is always changing. with books, they stay the same and we change. Reading books again helps me sort out how I’ve changed and why.

I’ve discovered some classics do not age well (I found Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe impenetrable), but others are more potent than ever (Catcher in the Rye). It’s easy to forget there are both bad and good reasons for a classic to remain a classic.

6 years ago I picked up a copy a Moby Dick in a used book store, read the first page and thought it quite inviting, as I’d never read the book before. Since then I’ve traveled with Moby Dick a dozen times, never finding the courage to crack it open. I’d see it on my bookshelf, or on my desk, and it would gnaw at me: the book had become, all on it’s own, my private little white whale.

And so last week, on vacation in Mexico it came along yet again. And I finally read the whole damn thing.

I did enjoy it, but not in a way I’d recommend to most people I know. I was reading it more as a writer than a reader, if that makes any sense. Writers do this. We want to understand how books work.

(Actual review starts here) – The problem with the book (or its brilliance if you are patient enough) is that Melville is a tease. The first 80 pages presents itself as a charming, funny, intriguing tale of life in whaling. He writes very well, and has some brilliant prose and pacing. But he slowly unwinds the book into wider and wider circles of pedantry, indulgence, and esoteric ramblings that more than try your patience. Ahab, the most well known character from the book, can’t be mentioned on more than 80 of the 480 pages of the edition I read. The majority of the book is a whaling manual of sorts, with encyclopedia-like entries and opinion essays on various aspects of whales, whaling, and seafaring culture. Melville also shifts narrative form wildly in the book, sometimes he’s Ishmael, sometimes he’s Melville, sometimes he’s a sort of movie-style narrator (approximating Shakespearean stage direction). And Melville loves his references: my edition had 300 endnotes, half of which are sailing terms, the rest are biblical or literary references critical to understanding his sentences.

I suspect the movie version with Gregory Peck (screenplay by Ray Bradbury) provides the experience many people would expect in the book. I haven’t seen the movie, but plan to, just to compare.

I diligently read every page, resisting the urge to skim and skip, exploring if I could resisting the temptations of my attention. And in so doing I learned how much wider the idea of a novel is than I’d thought it could be.  He successfully (at least in terms of posthumous readership, the book didn’t sell that well in his lifetime) manages to twist the concept of a novel into various odd shapes, with strange and unwieldy corners – it made me rethink the notion of what a book, fiction or non-fiction, can be like. As a writer I’m glad I read the whole thing.

The best possible take on the book is that Melville desired to give the reader a similiar obsession about the white whale to the one Ahab has. The longer the book went on, the stronger the sense of craving, and then obsession, I had for the core narrative to continue. As Ahab hunts the whale, so does the reader hunt the story of Ahab and the whale in the book. A minority of the non-narrative chapters are exceptional essays (The Hyena (49), The Monkey Rope (72), Fast-Fish & Loose Fish, and the chapter on the concept of white) that I marked well and might reread. A dozen or so passages in the book, often about Ahab or philosophy, are exceptional. But for a book of this length I had a fairly low number of passages marked to return to and reread.

My edition (Wordsworth 2001) included a 15 page introduction by David Herd that bordered on worship. Thankfully I read it after I finished the book, as it would have ruined the reading. He grants every possible benefit of the doubt to Melville, often without much real evidence of Melville’s intentions. Apparently Melville had reservations, stating “It will be a strange sort of book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you might get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree”.

And I’m compelled to say for no particular reason, Melville’s Bartleyby the Scribner remains one of my favorite short stories. It’s quite the opposite reading experience from reading Moby Dick.

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16 Responses to “Book Review: Moby Dick”

  1. Ian Stoba |

    I had Moby Dick assigned in a high school English class and never made it past the first chapter or two. I’m reading it now as an adult (I’m about 80% of the way through) and I’m enjoying it immensely.

    I agree with you that the conventional plot, the part we all know about the tyrranical captain with the whalebone leg, is hardly found in the actual novel. The part I’m enjoying is the interior life of Ishmael. He is a lowly deckhand on a whaleboat, about the lowest level of 19th century society and yet he is an amazingly erudite, highly educated person.

    The best description I have of the story is that it is essentially the autobiography of Dilbert’s genius trash collector. Would you expect that book to be a riveting tale of getting up early and hanging off the back of the truck?

    Reply
    • Jahful |

      Ian, you probably finished this book long ago, but at 80% of the way through, you’re right, Ahab isn’t a big thing. But the last 80-100 pages are just dripping with Ahab.

      Reply
  2. Scott Berkun |

    Ian:

    Cool to find a kindred spirit in the recovery of Moby Dick.

    I did find the interior life of Ishamel interesting at times, but he becomes quite annoying, like the person on an airplane next to you who insists on telling you everything you don’t want to know. It’s really quite self-indulgent writing, and it’s the aspect of the book that ages the worst (for me anyway).

    Reply
  3. Gabby Hon |

    The real-life adventure/nightmare/disaster that inspired ‘Moby Dick’ is chronicled in the outstanding book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick. And if you ever make it out to Nantucket, you can see the spot where Herman Melville met the captain of that cursed voyage.

    Reply
  4. Kevin Farner |

    One of the great benefits (for me anyways) of the kindle and iPad is the accessibility and affordability of the classics. I have on my bookshelf the entire 50 volume set of the Harvard Classics (the 5 foot bookshelf it was called). Anyway, even though I have the books, the font is fairly tiny, and I’ve been plowing through them at a much faster clip by buying them for $.99 / book and having them with me at all times.

    My son is 14 and is taking an independent reading course of the classics and I committed to reading them with him to re-read books I hadn’t read since high school. Amazing how much more I enjoy them now. 1984 has a lot more weight for me now, and I love the writing of the Great Gatsby in a way I never appreciated back then.

    Agreed on Robinson Crusoe by the way. Really had a tough time with that. Conversely, I really enjoyed Two Years Before the Mast, and if you did like the seafaring elements of Moby Dick, I think you’ll enjoy.

    Reply
  5. Scott Berkun |

    Kevin: Great Gatsby holds up amazingly well. And it’s a short read.

    Hadn’t heard of two years before the Mast, I’ll check it out – thanks!

    Reply
  6. DGentry |

    I heard a fascinating insight about Melville from a modern author (RA Salvatore), which resonated and has stuck with me.

    Moby Dick was published in 1851. At that time and for many decades after, many if not most people reading the book would have never seen a whale, not even a drawing. There were no public aquariums. There was no equivalent of National Geographic. People might know of a whale from the biblical story of Jonah (*), and they burned whale oil in their lamps, but they would have only a vague idea that a whale was a big fish.

    Melville was compelled to include very long descriptions of what a whale was, what it looked like, how it behaved, etc. His readers needed the description. Modern audiences neither need nor expect such treatment, authors can pretty much just say what kind of animal it is and get on with it.

    Would you agree with this?

    (*) The Bible doesn’t say it was a whale, but many preachers do.

    Reply
  7. Scott Berkun |

    DGentry: The motivation is understandable, but the way he handles it is hard to justify. I don’t think the average reader, even in 1851, wanted to read 12 pages about the history of paintings of whales, or other obscure and fairly academic explorations.

    I kept wondering – why not include a sketch of a whale? Or a picture? There were plenty of long passages about boats, or sailing gear, or whale anatomy, that would have been much better and faster explained by a simple diagram or sketch.

    Now I have no idea how hard it would have been to include a drawing in a self-published book in 1851, but the spirit of trying to find a simple way to explain things to the average reader is a spirit entirely lost on Melville when he wrote Moby Dick.

    Reply
  8. Mike Nitabach |

    Moby Dick is one of my favorite books of all time. My second favorite Melville book is “White Jacket”.

    Reply
  9. Jeff |

    I haven’t finished it yet, but I recall some section where Ishmael says something to the effect that all the the various beasts have their great stories. Dragons, lions, etc have all had their days, but no one has yet written a book for the leviathans, and so here I set down all that I may.

    Something like that. You might be interested to track down what John Taylor Gatto has to say about Moby Dick, I think it was in his History of Education book, which can be read for free at the website.

    Basically, the point is to get lost in Melville’s head. It’s good that you didn’t read the spoilers first, and as for all the notes, there weren’t any in the original. The copy I read was the OLD “Greatest Books” copy I found at the library. In Melville’s day most people would have simply understood his references. Today we are far more secular and unaware of a great deal of history.

    Reply
  10. Dave B |

    Nice and succinct review. I finished reading Moby Dick a few weeks ago, and had much the same feeling about it as you had, though I wouldn’t have articulated them so well. Another strength of the book is the cast of interesting characters, though the slow pacing in the middle could certainly scare of a lot of readers. This book is part novel, part manual, part philosophy treatise.

    Reply
  11. Low On Prozac |

    It’s a strange book and incredibly long and drawn out, but the story has always appealed to me on a primal level. I hope I can take time to read it again someday.

    Reply
  12. hasini |

    It is nice to read the book review &it helped me a lot in my project.This even helped me in clearing my doubts about this book.thanks

    Reply
    • darshan |

      are you hasini reddy of d.a.v. public school??
      quack quack

      Reply
  13. Abishek |

    i like the book

    Reply
  14. Manali |

    Hi Scott, thanks for the review. Was wondering whether Moby Dick would be right for me, and I’ve decided that it’s probably not. :)
    Manali

    Reply

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