Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

 Moby-Dick Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect that had I known a good deal more or a great deal less about Moby Dick before I began, my journey through the novel would have been less rocky. Everyone knows the story of Ahab’s mad quest for the white whale that took his leg; Ishmael’s famous introduction; the startling appearance of the cannibal Queequeg. We pick these ingredients up from pop culture parodies, cartoons, analogies and idioms. Moby Dick is after all a great Western classic, and as such is inescapable; you don’t need to have read it to immediately associate the name Ahab with a mad peg-leg out for blood any more than you need to have read Oliver Twist for that name to conjure images of a poor, golden-hearted orphan.

My first introduction to the story, or at least the first I can recall, was a Great Illustrated Classics edition I read as a boy. Without going back to look at it, I’m comfortable with even my haziest of memories that that version cut significant corners. Now, I don’t doubt my enjoyment of that read, but its presentation may well have marred my current experience. Like so many great books, divorcing the story of Moby Dick from Ishmael’s telling of that story sacrifices far too much to be allowed. Thus my suspicion I knew the wrong amount, or at least the wrong sorts, of things about Moby Dick before I read it.

I wandered into the first few chapters expecting a straight narrative, but found instead a meandering, tangential recollection by a sailor about how he decided to go whaling. I was quickly impatient with Ishmael’s tale and it took me more than the first hundred or so pages to really settle into a rhythm. As soon as I became comfortable with Melville’s prose, and understood better what he was doing with the novel, I began to enjoy it a great deal more, and even to regret the first many chapters as wasted on me.

I came expecting “We’re Goin’ On a Whale Hunt” and found instead something deep and meditative, richly dramatic and broad. Ishmael’s narration begins with an apologia for going to sea wherein he asserts, “meditation and water are wedded for ever.” And achieving the sea we readers are at times buffeted by the winds and waves, or harassed by some little duties, but are more often lost in the vastness of the oceans, bobbing on what may as well be a cork in the deep. The Pequod, Ahab’s ship, never touches shore after she embarks, having carried all necessary supplies in her hold, and the isolation of open water is almost absolute. Interspersed in the telling of the story proper are essays on cetology, tutorials on sundry aspects of shipping, a sermon to sharks, and philosophical meditations on sea life (“This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.”). The fluidity of the novel allows for sometimes surprising turns, as when the action takes the form of dramatic scenes; my favorite chapters, in fact, were soliloquies more likely to be found on the stage. With this stylistic maneuvering Melville deftly convinces us that we’ve travelled with the Pequod for months, years. We don’t have to take his word for it, we can feel it, without feeling the exhaustion from the journey.

I do wonder if I read the book at a disadvantage. Too many times I succumbed to the ready availability of the internet, at various times pulling up photos of whales, charts of their relative sizes, and illustrations of whaling practices. I think my reliance on those resources may well have robbed me of certain dependence on Melville’s beautiful prose to paint a picture for me.

As soon as you close the cover on the Epilogue Moby Dick almost screams to be reread; I hope one day I’ll heed the call. Not only for those first hundred or so pages I slogged through, unappreciating: All of it bespeaks a sublety and depth unattainable in the first read.

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