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Saturday, February 7th, 2009
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Moby-Dick (Bantam Classic)

by Herman Melville

Call Me Ishmael

A review 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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