Thoughts on Moby Dick

Moby Dick, 1851

Moby Dick, 1851

Sadly, the Classic Literature Challenge has stumbled to a halt, but I’ve decided to finish out my reading list since I’ve already acquired the books and want to continue exploring these time-honored stories.

This is my second attempt with Moby Dick. Incidentally the book is also called The Whale and was first published in 1851 by Herman Melville. Touted as one of the great American novels, every time I opened a copy and started reading, I just couldn’t get into the story. The opening is great, the narrative voice is authoritative and potent…and then…yawn…

Snooooze.

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

I know the common complaint of students everywhere, “dude, it’s sooo boring,” and I commiserate. But, you have to give the book a chance. Our ideas about what makes a story good have changed over time and this particular telling has been around a long while now. The style can seem slow when we’re accustomed to being spoonfed action, and the structure can feel tortuous (okay, that might be true).

Unfamiliar with the byline? Here you go:

This is basically the story of a man named Ishmael who embarks on a whaling voyage. The focus is on what happens when Captain Ahab turns out to be more interested in taking revenge on Moby Dick (the white whale) than in business matters. Written at a time when whaling was still a common practice, in fact the author had personal experience in the industry, it now provides insight into the mechanics of the process, the scientific classification of whales, and the tools of the trade. Like any historical work, Moby Dick reflects the attitudes and values of the day, and addresses paired themes of defiance and obsession, friendship and duty, loyalty and death.

And here’s the opening paragraph:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Moby Dick illustration from 1892 edition.

(1892 edition)

Depending on which copy you pick up and how it was typeset, the average edition goes on like this for around 600 pages. That’s six hundred plus pages of reading effort.

Oh joy.

I was really struck by how many quotes I’d heard from the book not knowing they originated in the story. The influence of popular memes being what they are today, we tend to forget the concept has been around forever. A few of my favorites include:

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

“Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

“Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing.”

Moby Dick reads as a story of revenge but it is so much more than that. For me, getting involved in the narrative was a bit like listening to Schubert’s piano compositions. He’s not one of my favorite composers. No offense to any Schubert-lovers in the audience, but his music makes me sleepy. In a like  manner Melville’s maritime tale grew on me, just not all at once. Eventually the story and characters absorbed me. The language and structure are archaic enough that it required a different mindset and the reading process was slow. That isn’t always a bad thing because it allowed time for introspection. There are a multitude of themes and a wealth of historical context that infuse the story.

In case you want to check it out (and you should), here are some places to pick up a FREE copy:

  • The Literature Network offers Moby Dick in a chapter-by-chapter format, which is nice if you want to read a bit at the office and then a bit later at home.
  • Not to be outdone, the folks over at American Literature offer Moby Dick as just one volume in their Herman Melville library. Should you find yourself enjoying The Whale, you can check out another dozen of his works.
  • The University of Virginia library also offers an online version of Moby Dick, which I’m sure is much appreciated by their literature majors.
  • Project Gutenberg offers Moby Dick in multiple file platforms so you can find the one that happily fits your preferred reading device.
  • And of course there is the Amazon digital version of Moby Dick.
  • Should you experience the epic failure of “I can’t read this” and need assistance, here’s the link for the Moby Dick Big Read, in which many kind people with lovely voices read aloud all 135 chapters of the classic. Just for you. Say thanks now.
(1956 film poster)

(1956 film poster)

Don’t forget you can always supplement your experience with some viewing time. There’s nothing like reading the original work but sometimes the visual accompaniment of live-action helps put things in perspective. Courtesy of Encore and Starz, here’s a two-part 2010 production of Moby Dick you can watch if you’re lucky enough to have access to their On Demand feature. A recent operatic production was premiered at the San Francisco Opera House only a few months ago – you might check to see if they’ll be coming to a venue near you. And there’s always the classic film from 1956, starring Gregory Peck. The screenplay for this one  was written by Ray Bradbury (yes, the one and only) and the film is directed by John Huston. Today it feels typically campy and corny but is still worth a viewing.

Moby Dick surprised me. It was a difficult read, but so good that I’m going to delve back in for a second round because I sense that there were additional layers of complexity I missed because I lacked the necessary background for the time and place. There is an inherent richness worth exploring in Melville’s works. Give it a chance, or two. Maybe even three. Then come back here so we can chat about the content.

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  1. #1 by authorpatricia2010 on February 28, 2013 - 5:12 am

    I enjoyed being reminded here of the truly beautiful use of language in Moby Dick. Yes, it does tend to bog you down and can be a very good way to kick off a good night’s sleep. Loved this – “For me, getting involved in the narrative was a bit like listening to Schubert’s piano compositions.” However reading your clips here, I felt myself quickly drawn into Ishmael’s head and the not-so-good mindset he was experiencing. “With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.” Better the ship than the sword!

    • #2 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on February 28, 2013 - 9:33 am

      I love reading the convoluted language of past works. The writing is so different than what we’re encouraged to read and write today. I like modern lean fiction but the rich use of language in older books is appealing because of the contrast. Parts of Moby Dick were so flowery, it almost felt melodramatic. Reading became a luxurious indulgence like eating too much ice cream. The historical context always fascinates me too. So much technological and hard-won knowledge gone after only a couple of generations – although I’m not sad to see whaling disappearing as a practice.

  2. #3 by Millie Burns on March 4, 2013 - 2:25 pm

    I tried picking this up too, and put it down, I’ll have to give it another go. I’ve been challenging myself to read more classic literature. Sadly, going to an Adventist school, a great many of the classics were not on the approved reading lists. I’m trying to make up for that : )

    • #4 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on March 5, 2013 - 10:34 am

      It took me several tries to get into it – I wouldn’t have made that much effort with a modern book (never enough time, you know!), but with a classic I always think there must be SOME reason people keep reading it. I admit there were times I wanted to whack Ishmael over the head and stop reading. I’m glad I finished it and the reading got easier the farther in I got. There are so many amazing stories out there – one of the reasons I’ve decided to continue reading them too.

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