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Call Me Ishmael

Moby-Dick (Bantam Classic)Moby-Dick (Bantam Classic) by Herman Melville

Reviewed by Doug Brown

I'm embarking on a "classics year," where I'm going to try to read a lot of those books that I know I should have read a long time ago. You know the ones -- those books that we can all quote from and make references to, even though we've never actually cracked open a copy. I started last year by finally reading Darwin's main books (Voyage of the Beagle is very readable and enjoyable -- I regret I cannot say the same about Origin of Species, which is an encyclopedic litany of natural selection test cases). Then, when I interviewed Stephen Pinker, he mentioned having recently enjoyed Moby-Dick and recommended it to me for the biology aspects. So I made the plunge. And you know what? It went quicker than I expected, and it's got some interesting observations about people beyond the obvious insights about obsession and vengeance.

The most daunting thing about the book is certainly the length, though it is split into chapters that are rarely more than 5-10 pages long, so you can read in sips. In today's market it would probably have been split into two books: a novel about a revenge-bent whaler, and a nonfiction book about whales and whaling. The chapters are thus divided, so there will be a chapter about events on the Pequod, followed by a chapter about the sizes of whales, followed by another novel chapter, followed by a chapter on the uses of whaling implements. The chapters on whaling make for some squeamish, if informative, reading. In one particularly unfortunate chapter, Melville (or is it Ishmael?) makes a defense of whaling, arguing that unlike the bison that were already being exterminated, the whales couldn't be exhausted. Sadly wrong.

However, the human nature observations are good, even if Melville is no exception to the florid writing style of the time. Here's a bit that people who use the ocean to recharge their batteries might find familiar:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily stopping at coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Star Trek fans will recognize bits of Khan's dialogue in Star Trek II, as Ricardo Montalban (sad loss) deliciously chews scenery referencing Ahab at several points: "He tasks me"; "I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up"; and the classic, "To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee"; etc. That Ahab, he's a scream.

I'm glad I waited until later in my life to read Moby-Dick. If I'd had to read it in high school I would have hated it for the prose and length, and in college I would have focused too negatively on the fact that it is about whaling (angry young man syndrome). Now I can see whaling for the peculiar institution that it was (and unfortunately, in parts of the world still is), but still look past that to see why Moby-Dick has been in print since before the Civil War. I'm glad I read it, and not just so that I can say, "Yeah, I've read it." It certainly could have been a shorter book, and the prose tends towards a purplish hue; but it isn't called one of the great American novels out of dogmatic tradition. I learned the phrase "get under way" was originally spelled "under weigh"; weigh meant to lift, as in lifting the anchor, which is still preserved in the nautical phrase "weigh the anchor." If you want to learn a lot about the operation of sailing ships, or find what was known about whales in the mid-19th century, or just read a magnificent portrait of a man driven by an obsession for vengeance (Ahab isn't as crazy in the book as you might think), then give Moby-Dick a try. Just don't expect to finish it in a weekend.

Note: Yes, the title of Moby-Dick is hyphenated, though the name is never hyphenated in the text. Why Melville hyphenated the name on the cover and title page, but not elsewhere, is a mystery to me.

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8 Responses to "Call Me Ishmael"

    Ruth Blair February 6th, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    I enjoyed Matt's enthusiasm for "Moby-Dick".
    I guess I'd say that that "florid writing style of the time" contains some of the most beautiful prose-poetry passages in the English language.
    And I'd throw in that people like Annie Dillard consider this THE great environmental novel. I throw it open for other readers to work out why.

    Doctor Slop February 7th, 2009 at 6:19 am

    I never read Moby-Dick until I was in my twenties. Then I read it three times in rapid succession. Its effect on me was tremendous at the time. What bothers me now is the number of people who read abridged editions and think that they have read the book. What they miss with their abridgments is pretty much everything outside the Ahab story - and that is a lot. They miss seeing just how subversive this novel is. It begins with sly misquotations of other classics in "Extracts." Chapter 64, "Stubb's Supper," is just about the darkest writing I've ever encountered. Chapter 89, "Fast Fish and Loose Fish" is hilarious. Chapter 103, "Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton," appears to be a parody of Jewish mysticism, and ends with Melville/Ishmael's multi-layered statement, "Thus we see how that the spine of even the hugest of living things tapers off at last into simple child's play." I loved this book, as well as the woman who first recommended it to me and read most of Melville's works before I'd finally had enough. Only "Mardi" and "Clarel" proved impossible. I'd even go out on a limb to say that Melville, along with the New England transcendentalists went further than anyone else has gone toward inventing a genuinely American religion, one that is now sadly neglected.

    joe February 7th, 2009 at 6:49 am

    I wish I hadn't been required to read Moby-Dick in highschool (1970); I still cringe at the mere mention of it (or Ahab)....absolutely the most boring reading experience of my life!

    s h a r o n February 7th, 2009 at 8:03 am

    Good job, Dougie.
    I almost passed this one by, but I enjoyed the review very much, and dammit, now I think I'm going to have to read M-D.

    H. S. Greeson February 7th, 2009 at 8:34 am

    You might have picked a reviewer for this great book who had more to say about the heart of the matter, the Ahab-whale/evil conflict, but kept carping on the obvious: that 19th century prose differs from contemporary English style and that, yes, "Moby Dick" is a long book. Tom Wolf and Thomas Pynchon, amongst others, have written very long books, too.

    dyagel February 8th, 2009 at 7:57 am

    I will share this review with my students, 11th graders in a magnet high school for gifted kids. As it is one of their summer reading books (I know, I know -- I can hear legions of you all across the country groaning about our cruelty), I listen to their moans and groans once we hit the classroom in September. I am not foolish enough to believe that all of them actually read it cover to cover, so we then focus on some key chapters, using James Woods' piece from The Broken Estate as our guide. The funny thing -- thought not unexpected -- is that for the rest of the year, in all our study of American Lit, rarely a week goes by without one of them saying, albeit it reluctantly ... "This is just like in Moby Dick..." They come to wear their reading of the tome as a badge of honor, and even become a bit fond of this massive, beautiful, mess of a masterpiece.

    sesshu foster February 8th, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    no not the penguin classics version; the one to get is the university of california edition outstandingly (and usefully) illustrated by barry moser's woodcuts! it reprints a slightly reduced version of the arion fine letter press edition of melville's terrific and prophetic tale of a civilization based on arrogance & ecocide.

    Robot Boy February 15th, 2009 at 11:27 am

    I agree with Dyagel's intention to share this review with his eleventh graders, as it seems to have been written by one.

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