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Thar She Blows

A lot of people think of reading Moby-Dick as a chore, even if they’ve never tried in earnest. It has…

A lot of people think of reading Moby-Dick as a chore, even if they’ve never tried in earnest. It has a bad reputation for being a hard book, and it’s certainly chock full of information about whaling that many find boring. If it’s widely ignored or feared, Moby-Dick is also a book widely loved, and I thought I’d spend a post writing on its behalf. There’s so much in the book to enjoy and admire, especially if you’re of a mind to turn the odd phrase yourself.

Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first. There’s a lot of information in Moby-Dick about the gory old business of whaling and about the creatures themselves. I’ve always found it strange that a culture that creates a clear demand for television programs about things like crab fishing, tuna fishing, logging, trucking, duck hunting, and working in pawn shops is a culture that poo-poos the sort of documentary view Melville often gives us of whaling. He’s writing about fascinating stuff here!

But worse is the fact that those who skip the whaling bits miss so much of Melville’s humor. Moby-Dick is an uproariously funny book even in what are considered the boring parts. Take for example this excerpt from his description of the narwhale in a catalogue of the various types of whales:

My own opinion is, that however this one-sided horn may really be used by the Narwhale–however that may be–it would certainly be very convenient to him for a folder in reading pamphlets.

Just a little later, our narrator describes the Mealy-mouthed Porpoise as having “quite a neat and gentlemanly figure.” These are generous, fun descriptions, and for all that we may these days be unaccustomed to the sort of wit Melville treats us to here, if you’re receptive to it, it’s a very funny book indeed.

Of course, he doesn’t make us laugh just in the chapters about the business of whaling. Early in the story, an innkeeper makes a little sport of our narrator, Ishmael, by telling poor Ishmael that his roommate to be is running around town trying to sell his head. The roommate of course is a cannibal selling a shrunken head, which just compounds the comedy, as Ishmael was already nervous about sharing a room with a stranger in general, much less one with habits so very different from his own.

But Melville is also full of lovingkindness and fellow feeling. After the inevitable comic meeting of Ishmael and roommate Queequeg and a night spent nervously but comfortably together, Ishmael considers his discomfort with the heathen religious rites that he has witnessed his new friend observing:

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth — pagans and all included–can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? — to do the will of God — THAT is worship. And what is the will of God? — to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me — THAT is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. But we did not go to sleep without some little chat.

Again and again, Ishmael discovers petty things that give the lie to his sense of his own enlightenment, and in his gentle way, Melville is tweaking his “enlightened” readers as well.

Of course, Melville’s not all hugs and kisses. There’s old Ahab’s ritual baptism of harpoons in blood  in the name of the devil. There’s Ahab’s turning away from a fellow captain in search of his child lost on the ocean; Ahab must follow his whale instead. There’s conflict and treachery and near death and mass death. But there’s also reflection on what death means and, by implication at least, what living means. There’s much philosophy in the book, and it’s often rendered just gorgeously (critics of the time — who almost universally panned the book — accused Melville of being rhapsodic).

A few lines that stand out to me among many I’ve highlighted in one of my several well-worn copies of the book:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung.

then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony! Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock. Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said–”Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!” This the creature? this he? Oh! that unfulfilments should follow the prophets. For with the strength of a thousand thighs in his tail, Leviathan had run his head under the mountains of the sea, to hide him from the Pequod’s fish-spears!

I could go on and on and on. There aren’t many sentences in the book that don’t fill me with delight and admiration.

The particulars of the book aside, part of what makes it a great book is its audacity. Melville sought to write a great book about a great beast at a great and horrible time in our nation’s history. The book has many flaws, but it also has so very many beauties. I think that any writer would do well to dip into Moby-Dick at least in bits and pieces.

I had thought I might eventually wind up writing about Moby-Dick, but what caused me to go ahead and do it was the recent announcement of a Kickstarter campaign to fund a table top card game based on the book. I have no idea whether or not the game’ll be any good, but I’ve backed the project, which has already met its early goals but is still being funded to make the game better and better.

Since it’s an old text, Moby-Dick can be found online in any number of places. Power Moby-Dick is a good start, especially if you’re worried about references to things old and nautical that you may not be familiar with. If you’re too busy to read much but have a commute, you might try this free audio recording. Of course there’s the good old Project Gutenberg text too. The book comes in many print editions, children’s editions, pop-up editions, graphic novel editions, and no doubt other incarnations. There’ve been several movie adaptations and various documentaries and even an opera adaptation, and if you’re into art, I can’t highly enough recommend this book, in which an artist (disclosure: a friend) drew an illustration for every page of his edition of the book.

I think these multi-media interpretations of Melville’s book are great companions, but really, I wish everybody would give the book a chance, enjoy its rhythms, its generosity and compassion, its lofty language and its puckish sense of humor.

44 Comments

  1. I think it would be a great game but so few youngsters are reading the classics anymore I have to wonder. If it isn’t electric and from another galaxy, I have a few doubts. I applaud your idea and your efforts and if I can be of any help. I have images from both harbors and fishing fleets on Cape Ann that might make nice backgrounds since that is the area from which the Pequod sallied forth. I DO wish you well. I love books, love the classics and wonder whether anyone will recognize any of them in another dozen years.

  2. One of those classics I’ve always intended to read one day. I’ll list it beside ‘Les Miserables’ and hope I get around to them both. :)

      1. I have a list of ‘classics’ I should read a mile long, and I’m slowly working my way through them. Don Quixote is on it! Takes a while to motivate myself, but I do knock one off the list every once in a while. Thanks for the suggestions!

      2. When I first picked up Don Quixote, I almost cried. I thought there was no way I’d get through it. But I was so pleasantly surprised. It took me less time to get through than any of the Outlander series has.

  3. I dreaded reading Moby Dick and didn’t read it twice when assigned. Then years later I felt stupid and childish for avoiding it and decided to read it and it was like POW what an awesome book. I have no idea why it had the rep it does but it rocks.

  4. This is true for most classics… take Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein… it is wonderful, romantic and has some of the most romantic love letters, I feel , in history.. oh ya scary too…not to many people take the time to read it either.

  5. I’ve read Moby Dick, and felt exactly as you describe in your writing. The first part of the book bored me to death. Inbetween, it wasn’t bad. I’ve been meaning to read it and you’ve convinced me to do so.

  6. I am an avid reader and I just finished Moby Dick for the first time late last year. It took me nearly 6 months to get through it. I wound up knowing much more about whales than I ever thought possible– and which proved very entertaining when visiting an animal museum in December, after reading about the differences in the whale, dolphin and shark anatomies. I also discovered that reading Moby Dick without my glasses on was more effective than Ambien for inducing slumber. A good book, albeit long-winded. And, by God, I did not let the book beat me!

      1. It was… errm… rough waters for a while there. I wanted to throw it across the room a few times, then I remembered it was on my Nook and would probably be an action I would regret the next day. LOL

  7. I just finished reading “In the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick, an account of the whaling ship the Essex, apparently Melville’s inspiration, in part at least, for Moby Dick. Both great books for different reasons, and a sad reminder that things haven’t changed for the better over the years in regards to the way too many view the ocean: as little more than vast puddle full of endless resources just waiting to be collected….
    lets hope with a greater appreciation for the ocean, readers of either book will instigate some change for the better and the future… need a place to start? Just remember, there’s nothing sustainable about fish in a can!

    1. Philbrick has another nice little book called Why Read Moby-Dick, and if you’re into the whaling aspects, check out Philip Hoare’s The Whale (which goes in some depth into the idea of the ocean as a resource pool). For anybody wanting a nice mix of Melville biography, literary criticism, and history, Andrew Delbanco’s Melville is a must-read.

      1. thanks for the recommendations, will try to read them soon, we’ve had a couple of close calls with grey whales while out sailing, and always keen to learn more about their habits and thoughts!

  8. When I read this I was wondering if it wasn’t inspired by that Kickstarter campaign (which I both blogged about and contributed to) – and then you mentioned it, yay! It’s wonderful to see someone so inspired by such a difficult classic.

    1. Altho I’ve also proved that I did a tl;dr on your post! (I promise that I only skimmed through because I didn’t want spoilers, even in spite of major plot points being well known culturally!)

      1. You mean how Queequeg and Ishmael run off to get married by Father Mapple and Ahab returns home to his wife and child with Moby Dick happily following along to become their pet, right? Right? ;)

  9. Or if the real thing is just too intimidating, warm up with Moby-Dick: A BabyLit Ocean Primer. I’m serious. My two-year old loves it.

  10. Moby Dick is one of my all time favorite characters…to create a personality for such a creature requires an immense imagination, it is a requirement, if one intends on his reader’s temporary suspension of disbelief, don’t you think so?

  11. I love people who are ambitious enough to read Moby Dick. It certainly took me a long time to get to it. Nathaniel Philbrick (who loves the book enough to have read it over a dozen times) wrote a book called Why Read Moby Dick? which is an excellent intro to the book. He says, “Contained in the pages of Moby Dick is nothing less than the genetic cod of America..”

  12. My initial reaction the first time I tried to read Moby Dick was that the tedium of Melvil’s language made the reading of Shakespeare an effortless joy. It’s one of the few books that I have attempted more than once to finish and failed at every attempt. Who knows? Perhaps it is time now to try again, and this time emerge victorious.

  13. I made it about a third of the way through Moby-Dick on my Kindle and had to set it aside until my eyeballs heal. I will finish it some day.

  14. I appreciate your courage to post on such a controversial topic such as Moby Dick, but as one of my great Professors, or Poet friends (can’t quite place) said once, try saying this to a group of your students : “Okay, We are all going to read Moby Dick aloud.”

  15. Thank you!! For providing all those multimedia versions of Moby-Dick. I’ve been trying to read the book several times but always end up putting it back in the shelf and getting an ‘easier’ book to read. (As a matter of fact I just took it with me to work this morning, but stopped just after a couple pages.) I will download the audio book for now. But I’m still determined to read the print. :)

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