Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick
By Herman Melville
Penguin Books August 2013, Originally published in 1851
688 pages
From the library 

Moby-Dick: or, The Whale

In one of the most enduring but nerve-inducing pieces of American literature, we are introduced to Ishmael, his determined captain Ahab, and the crew of the whaling ship the Pequod. Ishmael is restless and has decided to take up whaling as his next adventure. But he never imagines the consequences of Captain Ahab's quest for revenge against Moby-Dick, the white whale that took his leg.

Moby-Dick strikes fear into the heart of many a reader because..well, it has something of a reputation. It doesn't help that the book clocks in at nearly 700 pages. And you may hear whispers around bookish circles that this book is "well, really boring." But here's the thing - this is sort of two books for the price of one. The first book concerns Ahab and his unquenchable desire for revenge on the whale who robbed him of his leg and some of his dignity. But intertwined with this quest are Ishmael's scientific observations about whales as well as a not-so-brief explanation of the history and practices of whaling. That first part, the story part, is incredibly gripping as every possible sign indicates that Ahab should give up his quest. But he refuses. Conversely, hundreds of pages of nautical terms can drag a bit.

I have to confess that there is a tiny part of me that wonders if Melville was playing a colossal joke. He had a story - a really good story about fate and revenge - but then he decided to surround this story with endless digressions about different types of whales and the process of removing oil from the whales after they are caught. Would anyone read this book? There is a cynical part of me that thinks Melville is howling with laughter somewhere on the great whaling boat in the sky as he cackles, "Wait, wait. You are telling me that my book is considered a classic?? They make children read this in school?!?!"

But if I think about it, I know that these seeming digressions actually serve to make the story a richer experience. We understand exactly how powerful the whale is as the crew valiantly battles with him. We know each of the steps that the men must take to harvest and store the oil from the whale. We have experienced long months at sea with the crew so we know which days are normal and which ones are omens of something to come.

Moby-Dick will forever be a book that divides readers. Some will find it to be just too much. Melville is doing so many things in this book and he knows so much about history and culture that he is eager to share with his readers. So this just isn't the kind of book that makes you stay up much too late to finish. But it has a lot to offer to the reader who is willing to stick it out. This book will give you great insight into what it is to be human - what it means to depend on other people and the ways in which we can control our fate and are controlled by it. There are also moments of humor to be found in these pages, especially as Ishmael observes some cultural differences between himself and his fellow sailors who hail from different countries. The mates are also good for a few chuckles as they sarcastically wonder at the wisdom of Ahab's orders, all the while following them.

I don't forsee reading this book again and while I was reading it, it felt like a chore at times to open it again and read the next chapter or two. But ultimately, I'm glad I read it. It gives me the opportunity to contribute to the conversation surrounding one of the English language's most (in)famous books. More importantly, I went along for a journey with the vengeful Captain Ahab and the ever-observant Ishmael and it was a trip I don't think I will ever forget. 

16 comments:

  1. I have this one on my classics club list and I confess that I am a bit apprehensive. I found Les Mis a drag because of all the unrelated info/diversions, and I fear this will be the same, but with nautical terms!

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    1. I can understand your apprehension! When I think about it, there was really no other way for Melville's readers to get added information about whaling. I guess he thought too much info was better than not enough!!

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  2. My roommate and I will be reading this later this year as a reading challenge, and we're both semi-intimidated. I've seen several reviews of it lately, and that's helped. I hope it won't be too terrible, though since we've tackled Infinite Jest and Canterbury Tales, I'm rapidly losing my fear of classics.

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    1. It's so helpful to have a buddy to read them with. I'm so impressed you read Infinite Jest. That's one that intimidates me!

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  3. Can I count reading your review as having read the book??? (Because I don't think I'm ever reading this one.) Great post!

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  4. I just couldn't get into it when in school. Haven't tried it since, but thanks for posting it. Not all classics appeal to all folks, so I reassure me that I am not strange :)

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    1. That is certainly true for all books!

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  5. I've read *most* of moby-Dick and found most of what I read to be very good. I read it for a class in college, so I did some really heavy skimming in several places--the biology of the whales, etc. But all of the actual narrative? Very good. I will never pick it up to read in the future, but I am glad that I had the motivation to read it for a class. I'm impressed that you tackled it just because!

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    1. Thanks! It is a great story if readers can get past all of the science and history.

      I think I'm just trying to get out of my comfort zone. It's so easy to read only contemporary literary fiction!

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  6. I am happy you read this book, but I'm going to admit I'm probably not going to. Like many school children I read parts of Moby Dick. You have given great arguments on why people either love or hate this book, wonderful review, and I'm happy someone reads these classics, because I'm not going to get to all of them. :).

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    1. Thanks Anita! Somehow I never read it in school so I figure I needed to take my turn. :)

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  7. This is how I felt about The Count of Monte Cristo. It's not quite as bad about digressing, but it is long winded and sometimes felt like work to me. I'm happy I read it though, if only so I can talk to people about it :) It would make me so happy if it turned out that Melville was just having a laugh. I think I've heard that his book wasn't very successful during his lifetime, so I do think he'd be surprised that we're still reading it!

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    1. I always find it fascinating that some books do well during an author's lifetime and then are forgotten and then some books have the opposite trajectory.

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  8. I applaud you for getting through this one Lindsey, its just too many pages... And I feel like a lot of it would be irrelevant to the story, as some lengthy classics tend to.
    :-)
    Bits & Bobs

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    1. Thanks Jade. It is quite a long book!

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