Friday, January 22, 2016

(PRETENSION ALERT!) Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Yep, just finished Moby-Dick the other day. I feel so pretentious having finished it but I like to throw in a classic novel into the mix every once in a while.

I really enjoyed it but it took about 6 months to finish. This is mainly because I own a copy of it so I could put it down easily while I read more time-sensitive books from the library. We get new releases for only three weeks; my copy of Moby-Dick is forever. (Until it gets placed into the Goodwill box, that is.)


  • THE BOOK
    • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
    • Published in 1851
    • Other works by Melville
      • Several novels including popular crossword puzzle answers Typee and Omoo
      • Short stories including "Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby, The Scrivener" (whose constant comment is only "I would prefer not to.") 
        • I read both of the short stories in college for some humanities class where I also read Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness and several short stories by James Joyce. I am still in a state of depression from that class 30+ years later.
    • Considered one of the Great American Novels.

  • THE PREMISE
    • Is there anyone who doesn't know this?
    • Ishmael tell the story of the Pequod whose Captain Ahab wants his revenge upon the white whale responsible for Ahab's missing leg.
    • SPOILER ALERT: Things do NOT go well.

  • THE STORY
    • And here's the crux of why Moby-Dick can be such a slog to get through: it's really a short story or novella padded out with a LOT of whale information.
    • The opening line is one of the most famous in literature: "Call me Ishmael."
    • The best part of the book is the beginning when Ishmael meets and becomes good friends with the cannibal harpooner named Queequeg. It's a total bromance in the early going.
      • The amusement comes in the two men needing to share a room and bed as was the custom in those days. There was nothing sexual in men sharing a bed in the 19th Century but it is amusing to a  modern reader's eyes.
    • Once they reach the Pequod then the "story" is lost while Melville expounds on every detail of whaling and whales. (Ahab spends most of his time in his quarters, appearing only rarely in the middle section.) And I do mean EVERY detail.
      • One chapter is titled "The Cassock" (an ankle-length outfit worn by priests, like what the Pope wears) and details a crewman's skinning of a long, large whale organ and using it as a smock (cassock) to protect him while mincing up whale blubber. Considering the constant use of the word "sperm" in the book (Moby is a sperm whale) you'd think Melville could just come out and use the word "penis" but he does not.
    • During the whale nature tour chapters are meetings with other ships, each of which generally consists of Ahab asking, "Seen the white whale? No? See ya!"
    • The last dozen or so chapters contain the meat of the Ahab vs. Moby-Dick story. 
      • Ahab: "Kill the white whale!"
      • Moby-Dick: "Your leg was delicious. May I have the other one too? And all the rest of you?"
      • Ishmael: "Hey guys, wanna hear some whale lore?!"
      • The Pequod: "Glub, glub. Bloop."
      • The Pequod crew: "Glub, glub. Bloop."
      • Ishmael: "Well, crap."

  • OTHER COMMENTS
    • I don't remember learning about Moby-Dick specifically as a child because I think it was always part of American culture even though very few people have read the book.
      • What I DO remember is an episode of "The Love Boat" where the male crew members somehow convince Julie McCoy, your cruise director, to memorize the first chapter of Moby-Dick. I remember a few scenes of her reciting, "Call me Ishmael..."
    • Apparently the book didn't become popular until the 1920s (Melville had died in 1891.) I also wonder if it might have not been an acceptable book for Victorian era readers. The word "sperm" is all over the book and I can't imagine it would be acceptable for proper young ladies to read it!
    • I spent a lot of time reading up on whales on the Internet because Melville was hampered by the fact that all whale information was limited to what could be seen on the water's surface. There was no way in the 19th Century for whalers or naturalists to know what happened beneath the water level. Even today some whales are still quite mysterious.
      • For example, he couldn't know that sperm whales use echolocation and clicks to communicate with each other. 
      • That being said, he still knew quite a bit about whales! He had been a whaler himself.
      • In one chapter he muses on whether whales will disappear from the planet or at least diminish in size. He concludes that they can retreat to the polar regions to escape man so they will always survive. If only.
        • In fact, the rise of petroleum products and whaling bans were probably the biggest helps in saving whales, though sperm whales are currently considered "vulnerable". (It's difficult to repopulate quickly when pregnancies last about 15 months.)
    • I TOTALLY get why people think this book is boring. If you have no interest in whale biology or whaling minutiae then a huge part of the book will make you want to hurl. The Ahab story, the reason you generally want to read it at all, is just a small part of the novel.
      • The novel has 135 chapters. The last three are titled "The Chase-First Day", "The Chase-Second Day" and "The Chase-Third Day". So you need to get through 132 chapters before the big confrontation occurs. You could probably get away with reading the first dozen and the last dozen chapters to get the gist.
    • I enjoy learning about whales so the biology chapters were my favorite parts. On the other hand, I could probably consult National Geographic for the latest in whale biology --- with pictures!
    • The writing style, as typical for the era, was somewhat wordy. In other words, characters sometimes speak in flowery sentences in very long paragraphs. And the descriptive paragraphs can be even worse. But here is my favorite sentence from the book:
      • "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own."
      • Today we would just say, "Life's a joke."


In summary, I would say it's worth reading if you like whale biology and flowery language. And Melville used several writing styles throughout the book which is fascinating. Lots of allusions, lots of hints of things to come. Definitely a book for an older reader. I don't know why they torture high school and college students with it despite the Great American Novel title. There are other GANs to choose from!

Otherwise, let it go and read a synopsis somewhere!

Here's the comic CPA Michael refer to in the comments:

1 comment:

  1. Now I understand this comic: http://assets.amuniversal.com/57b263b09c60013332ca005056a9545d

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