Day 272: Moby Dick or, The Whale

Cover for Moby DickThose who know me well will be surprised to see me reviewing this book, because one of my stories is of my horror, when first trying to read it, to find an entire chapter about one rope. At that point, Moby Dick became the first book I ever stopped reading. However, I got interested in trying it again by listening to the Moby Dick Big Read. I listened to the beginning chapters and finally picked up a copy to finish it.

The plot, of course, is about the sailor Ishmael, who decides to go whaling for the first time, the people he meets, and his experiences–and about the obsession of his captain, Ahab, to kill the whale that took his leg.

Moby Dick is not for everyone. The novel is not simply an adventure tale about whaling but also a dissertation on whaling history, a series of philosophical essays, an explication on types of whales, on the different parts of a whale, on pieces of whaling equipment (hence, the chapter on the rope), even a musing on the color white.

The novel also has a sort of schizophrenic narration, starting out as first-person limited from the point of view of Ishmael, but then at other times taking the point of view of Ahab. The writing style rips back and forth from simple story telling to a kind of heightened, bombastic oratory. Characters do not so much speak as give speeches.

The novel is immense, but it is meant to be immense–the way Melville saw America and its possibilities. I have over the years read different interpretations of this work (the whale as a symbol of evil, etc.), but one that strikes a chord with me is that it is a reflection on some of the American political ideas of the time, particularly Manifest Destiny. While seeming to admire the grandiosity of such ideas, Melville is, with one whaling story, also warning of their possible effects and ramifications.

I can see why some academics have devoted their careers to this work, because it can be endlessly examined and interpreted. I finished reading it this time, but I can frankly admit that it is still a bit too much for me and is probably better suited for someone who is more contemplative in his or her reading.

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6 thoughts on “Day 272: Moby Dick or, The Whale

  1. pharmgirll March 8, 2013 / 1:59 pm

    I had the same goal, to finally conquer this book. One day at the dollar store, I came across a Junior edition that is only about 200 pages. Of course it’s written for 5th graders, but I picked it up anyway thinking that it might be the only way I can conquer this goal. I look forward to claiming that I “read Moby Dick”. Kudos to you!

    • whatmeread March 8, 2013 / 2:04 pm

      I am not being facetious at all when I tell you I’ve heard there is an excellent pop-up book of Moby Dick. I’ve been meaning to look for it just out of curiosity.

  2. David Palmer March 8, 2013 / 10:53 pm

    Read this book as part of an existentialism class back in junior college. Albert Camus was a comic book author in comparison to Melville. It prepared me for “Atlas Shrugged”, though. Read every page of that. Have to admire your return to this difficult book. Next – James Joyce??

    • whatmeread March 11, 2013 / 7:46 am

      Oh, dear. I don’t think so. I tried to read Ulysses about 20 years ago. No go. I think Atlas Shrugged, which I read in college, was much easier than Moby Dick.

  3. Deb March 9, 2013 / 9:50 pm

    I never could finish that book either. Last year I checked out of the library the graphic novel version — “Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page” by Matt Kish — thinking I could manage that. Nope, although I did find many of the illustrations interesting.

    • whatmeread March 11, 2013 / 7:47 am

      I’ve heard that graphic novel is excellent. Haven’t seen it!

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