Reading Moby Dick


Moby Dick big readRecently, coincidental to while I was reading Herman Melville’s classic novel, I read a story that some folks in Vancouver took offence to the name of a restaurant: Moby Dick’s Fish & Chips.

Apparently the property overseers mistook the “Dick” in the name for a euphemism for penis, rather than reading the name of the famous novel in the whole title. A wholly puerile response, I’m sure you can agree. Perhaps many people in Vancouver haven’t even heard of the book, let alone read it, otherwise why would anyone protest? Which is a much sadder statement that the one about political correctness gone wild that the news story makes. It exposes the threadbare fabric of the protesters’ cultural upbringing and education.

But despite these philistines, I finished the book. It took a long time because it’s a long book (more than 206,000 words) and not the easiest to read for several reasons. Not least is my absolute loathing of the whaling industry and the killing of sentient cetaceans. And frankly, my aversion to the whaling aspect had stymied my several previous attempts to finish the novel. But this time I persisted, and was rewarded for the effort.

It’s also difficult because of the way Melville wrote it (first published in 1851) – dense, florid, perambulating stuff. It’s not so much a novel as an extended meditation on sailing, the ocean, whales, whaling, ship technology, weather, natives of the South Seas, the commerce of Nantucket, American values, religion, life and fate. Among other things. He digresses often and at great length. But those digressions add such riches to the narrative that you can’t really bypass them.

Moby Dick is one of those many “must read before I die” books that I have on my bookshelves that I know are great milestones in literature, but have either not caught my prior interest or simply defeated my attempts in the past (I tend to read mostly non-fiction and a lot of it). Many of these titles I know somewhat of through synopses or abridgments, through other media like movies, or through my childhood favourite: Classic Comics. Moby Dick is one of those: I’ve seen the movie, read the comic, read it analyzed and dissected in other books.

A few years back I wrote a post on Melville’s poetry, inspired by reading his powerful poem, The Shark, which got me to thinking about him. Last year, I stood in the Melville Hotel, in Mazatlan, built in the 1870s, and named after the author who had stayed in the town in 1844. That also got me thinking about Melville again.

And finally, I was watching an episode of CSI on DVD, one day in 2016, and the character Gil Grissom, when asked what would he do if he had more time to live, replied he would read Moby Dick again. That stuck with me. It seemed incongruous, and I wondered what impelled the script writers to add that line; why that book. My curiosity was aroused, which encouraged me to finally pick up Moby Dick and not give it up.

Easier said than done (I read around a dozen books at a time, and flit from one to the other every day). But I had help. I came across Moby Dick: Big Read, a project to bring the novel back to prominence through art, and through a reading of its entirety.

All 135 chapters plus the epilogue are read by different people. Normally I don’t like my audiobooks read by such a diverse group, and prefer just one reader, but this worked marvellously well.

I read, I listened, I read some more. I sometimes read a chapter then listened to it. Sometimes I listened to one, but unable to complete it on my walks, returned to finish it through reading. Sometimes I listened then went back to read the words again simply to see if the rhythms were the same as when spoken.

I didn’t read my way through all of the lengthy chapters on the minutiae of sailing and whaling, but I did listen to each one. And in listening I heard the poetry of Melville’s words, learned to appreciate his cadence and style. Those were chapters I might likely have skimmed through to get to the story. And I’m glad I didn’t. That material forms a framework around the story that holds it together.

The story, or plot, such as it is, is by far the shorter part of the content. You can read the first five or six chapters, ship into the 20s to read about the ship and Ahab’s appearance, then jump to around 130 to read the climactic finish if you really want to know what happens. We all know the story: Captain Ahab has passed into modern iconography for his obsessive pursuit of the white whale. Mad in a way we learn to respect yet fear, as tragic as Lear, driven, hard yet vulnerable. Thousands of words have been written about him.

And the whale – wise, crafty, determined not to be a victim, vindictive, powerful, evil yet a redemptive force, and a force of nature as basic and irresistible as a hurricane or a flood – we never really learn the whale’s fate. Or even why it was named Moby Dick (the novel loosely conflated several historical events and reports, including the adventures with a white whale named Mocha Dick). But in an odd perversion of symbolism, the white whale proves the evil to Ahab’s black goodness. In Moby Dick, things often get stood on their heads.

It’s a journey that takes place on the vast oceans with infinite horizons, but its view is confined to the tiny microcosm of the ship, the Pequod. They never land, never take leave, new do sailor-y things onshore, and once they sail land is hardly even mentioned again except as the final destination. But that proves a false hope. Except, of course, for Ishmael.

I was surprised to learn that the novel was not recognized as a literary masterpiece until decades after Melville’s death. It sold poorly when first published, in 1851 – about 3,000 copies. Critics were at best lukewarm, at worst hostile. Melville died 40 years later thinking he had been a failure as a writer. It was reprinted in the 1920s and a new audience of scholars and academics quickly realized what a masterpiece it was. It has been hailed as such ever since – salutations which Melville never lived to read.

And yet I doubt it would even get published today. In so many ways it violates all the basics of modern fiction – at least of popular fiction. It changes voice. It has no romance – in fact no women at all, once the boat sails. It is politically incorrect. It is chock full of cultural appropriation. It doesn’t follow the arc of the hero a la Joseph Campbell’s theories about storytelling. There is little action, at least not in the Tom Clancy or Dan Brown style. It’s not Jaws.

And in the end – ah, the ending. No redemption, no salvation, except for lonesome Ishmael. The neophyte among the crew survives; the innocent rises among the dead. He returns to the world symbolically, as from a womb, but not as Job (despite the epilogue’s starting quote), rather as a witness to another Job, a Job and his undoing, sacrificed to the malevolent deity of the whale.

Did you know that the epilogue was printed in the first US edition, but was not in the simultaneous UK edition? In fact, there were more than 600 differences and 35 omissions in the first UK edition; they contributed to the dismal reviews. Without the epilogue, after all, how could the reader really understand the end, explain the narrator’s voice?

Many more wise and better educated folk than I have analyzed the novel, so I won’t go into that here. I can only comment that reading it was worth the effort. I finished with a sense of the real depth of the novel, of Melville’s vision, and an awestruck admiration for his language skills. Plus my cardboard-cutout impression of what was within the novel has been filled into to a full 3D image.

And I cannot say enough about how much I appreciated the Big Read because it was the vehicle that helped carry me over what might have been stumbling blocks and gave me the continuity I might have lost, given my meandering and eclectic reading habits.

Now if only there was a Big Read for Crime and Punishment. Well, at least I’m half-way through it.

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