Call Me Ishmael

I LOVE Moby is for me what Leaves of Grass is for poetry. But I also love when people - well, intelligent people who are well written and funny - make fun of blowhard, long, classic tomes. A thing can not be GREAT if it is too great to take a few pokes in its soft belly.


We have a bit of history with Herman Melville's Moby-Dick here at Monkey See. It was the second selection in our I Will If You Will Book Club after Twilight (true story!), and we read the entire thing together in the spring of 2010. Book club vice-president Marc Hirsh and I finished the book in June of that year and declared it a great lesson in "how to pursue a pointless battle to its bitter, violent, inevitable end." By which we meant, in part, reading the book.

Despite the fact that some of the whale anatomy chapters sapped my will to live, I've not been sorry I read it. Whatever else can be said about it, the book is a basic point of cultural reference and a source of jokes and allusions you otherwise won't get. The very ideas of the white whale, the crazed captain, the voyage that really is a trip to crazy...these things have passed into myth, and it's good to know your own myths. But that's not the only reason to read it, and if you want to hear more reasons to read it, check out today's interview on All Things Considered with Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the new book Why Read Moby-Dick?

Be sure to click over to read Philbrick's rationale.

Yikes, I know have the opening music to The Little Mermaid stuck in my head. :)


Tim said…
I first read Moby-Dick about 10 years ago. And I immediately re-read it.

I've read it several times since.

What's so fascinating about the book is that it never quites get boring. I take issue with people who claim that the discussions of whaling technique or the daily routine aboard ship are boring. The great thing about Moby-Dick (as opposed to other of Melville's works) is that the language is exquisite.

I can't think of another author who dared to include these kinds of descriptions in his work. To Kill A Mockingbird does not include lengthy passages about going to law school. Wuthering Heights does not include long passages on animal husbandry or farming. But Melville did it, and he did it for a good reason. These passages were not designed to be historical documents of a quickly-disappearing way of life. They were intended to be mesmerizing.

And they are mesmerizing! Not because they are descriptions about dissection and boiling whale fat. But because the language used is so amazing. The closest modern work which even comes close is J.R.R. Tolkien in his endless descriptions about the Shire and weather and all that. But even then, that doesn't come close to what Melville accomplished.

If you've not read Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, I strongly encourage you to do so. It is an amazing, moving, wonderful work.
Writer said…
Tim, I believe Philbrick's point is very similar to yours. He calls the "whale anatomy parts
'wormholes of metaphysical poetry that are truly revelatory.'"

"But that's really thinking too small to fully understand why Philbrick thinks you should read Moby-Dick. As he tells Robert Siegel, he thinks you should read it not only because 'the level of the language is like no other,' but because 'it's as close to being our American Bible as we have.'"

"What does he mean by that fairly weighty reference? Moby-Dick, Philbrick explains, published in 1851, was itself born in the pre-Civil-War churn of a very tense American consciousness. While it wasn't a critical or popular success upon publication (critically, he calls it a 'great disaster'), Philbrick notes that after World War I, Americans here and abroad came to understand that it contained 'the genetic code' for much of what happens in the country where it was written. And he predicts it will cycle back to relevance in difficult times, 'whenever we will run into an imminent cataclysm.'"
Writer said…
On a personal front, I've only read Moby Dick once, and that was for class and we SKIPPED the chapter on whaling just as we skipped the opening to The Scarlet Letter.

But Moby Dick has always been a book that I intend to read again and therefore no matter where I live or how many times I move, I always have a copy of it with me.

I'll look for Philbrick's other book now. :)
I haven't read Moby dick since school, ansd well that was a hundred yrs ago...may need to re visit it, after I read this

Writer said…
And besides, David, with a title like Moby Dick how can we pass it up? ;) *yes, I'm a juvenile.
me too...i thought it, just didnt say
Chris said…
Oh boy did you press my buttons with this one. I happen to be working on a PhD in Anglo-American sea fiction, namely Melville and Conrad. On my desk, as we speak, is Thomas Philbrick's (=Nathaniel's dad) "J. F. Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction," butchered with my pink highlighting.

As in any field, things sometimes get boring as you wade through tons of not-so-useful materials, but "Moby-Dick" never loses any of its beauty. Thanks for this post.
Writer said…
Great minds, David, great minds. :)
Writer said…
It's kismet then, Chris. Sounds like an amazing project! :)

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