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.