various editions and prices
Why Read Moby Dick?
Viking, 2011, 131pp, hc; $25
Moby Dick, for the few of you who have managed to escape it, is a huge meandering novel written in 1851 by American author Herman Melville. It is about a young man who goes to sea on a whaling ship. The captain is mad as a hatter and obsessed with finding and killing the whale that took off his leg in a previous encounter. Along the way, along with all the run of the mill adventures involved in this nastiest and most arduous of hunts, the author embroiders (some would say drowns) the plot with the addition of all manner of asides, symbols and references to the classics, the Bible, Shakespeare, American history, just for starters. My hard copy is 822 pages. There are passionate arguments among those who care that Moby Dick is either the greatest American novel ever written or a self-indulgent word orgy signifying nothing.
Depending on your opinion of America's great saga, you may wonder how I decided to revisit it. Two events led up to this audacity on my part. First of all, during a meeting I missed, my library-centric little book group had put Moby Dick on our reading list for the month of April! I certainly regret missing that discussion because now none of the participants can explain how it happened. Second, I happened upon Nathaniel Philbrick's short but meaty answer to his own new title, Why Read Moby Dick. (See this website's January, 2004 review of Philbrick's Sea of Glory.)
Philbrick, as you might expect, is a huge admirer of Moby Dick. In his slight little book of 131 pages, he argues with wit, wisdom and passion that Moby Dick is worth every word. "Melville's great strength was an almost journalistic ability to record the reality of being alive at a particular moment...The reality of whaling (Melville insists) is more incredible than anything a novelist could invent... Reading Moby Dick, we are in the presence of a writer who spent several impressionable years on a whaleship, internalized everything he saw and seven or so years later, after internalizing Shakespeare, Hawthorne and the Bible, and much more, found the voice and the method that enabled him to broadcast his youthful experiences into the future." Melville was an old 31 when he wrote Moby Dick.
In high school, I was overwhelmed and the teacher wasn't far behind. As I recall, more attention was paid to the erudition than the plot, thus putting half the class to sleep. Furthermore, it wasn't until I had read the book at least three times that it occurred to me that Melville might not just be ponderous and long winded but even so, I still missed his humor. Philbrick, who has read MD "at least a dozen times" has refreshingly humanized Melville as well as the book, rather than simply decode the author's references, as have so many past commentators.
From one of Melville's letters to a friend (while he was writing MD in western Massachusetts), Philbrick quotes this gem, "My room seems a ship's cabin & at night when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney."
That quote is more than the expression of an author in the throes of creation. What Melville imagines is funny. In my three or four readings of Moby Dick during my high school and college days, it never occurred to me that such an overwhelming "great work" would contain anything even mildly playful, let alone laugh out loud funny...and more than occasionally ribald. On the contrary, this time around, finally on the alert, I cracked up frequently. The chapter on cetology (which we were allowed to skip entirely in high school) "contains some of the funniest parody writing you'll ever find," writes Philbrick. When some of the whales fail to fit into Melville's classifications, he dismisses these types as, "full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing."
Philbrick convinced me that I could enjoy the book on all its intricate levels or in plain black and white categories...as a history of whaling, a study in comparative mythology, or a search for the meaning of life, or just a hell of a yarn, literally skipping through the parts that don't relate to your preferred chosen theme.
For me, the element that dissolved my trepidation, was indeed, the humor, an early on example being Ishmael's desensitization to Queequeg which I can't quote because I read MD on my Kindle and haven't learned how to make notes on it and my deadline is now! Watch for it...I predict you'll grin.
The edition I downloaded is the Oxford World Classic (Kindle, $6.98) with a stuffy but helpful introduction, a brief biography of Melville's life and some correspondence between Melville and Nathanial Hawthorne, a mentor and a friend. The paper edition I finally bought for the next reading is the Modern Library edition with illustrations by Rockwell Kent used for $9.95.