I finally decided to read Moby-Dick.
My wife, a far more patient and cultured soul than I, was listening to an audiobook of the famous novel when I overheard the protagonist Ishmael going on and on about commonly used 19th-century oils — olive oil, Macassar oil, bear’s oil, sperm oil, what have you. Now, I care about oils, really, not at all, and yet this esoteric lecture kept inexplicably popping up in my thoughts for days.
Soon I found myself digging through the piles of nonfiction books I’d amassed around the house. I couldn’t remember when I had purchased Moby-Dick or why I had bought it or even if I had ever glanced at a single page in it, but I knew that somewhere, maybe under a history of the Crusades or a book on modern composers (which I mention to assure readers I’m not some vulgarian), there was an old copy of the novel.
Like millions of contemporary Americans, I’ve never had any inclination to plow through a 206,000-word saga about an irascible, disabled, and obsessive 1840s whaling-boat captain. Everything about the book screamed “Outdated bore.” I already have an aversion, predicated on a cultural contrarian streak that has served me quite well in life, toward consensus literary “classics.”
The same scoundrels who assured me Moby-Dick was a timeless classic, after all, had also subjected me to the indescribable tediousness of Ethan Frome and the intolerable whininess of The Catcher in the Rye and the eye-rollingly obvious allegoric plays about McCarthyism. Why would any person waste time with Kerouac or Hemingway when there existed Dostoevsky, Vargas Llosa, Waugh, and Tom Wolfe (the younger) was beyond me. I hope high school is treating students better these days.
So why give Moby-Dick a chance now? The historian Nathaniel Philbrick argues in his 2011 book Why Read Moby-Dick? that embedded in the pages of the novel is “nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.”
This is mighty praise. Philbrick goes on to write that it “means that whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important.” So perhaps the fact that we’re living through a once-in-a-century pandemic and my wife has good taste persuaded me to give the book a shot before I die — which, on some days, feels like it may happen sooner than anticipated.
Whatever the reasons, to my surprise, Moby-Dick turned out to be one of the most engrossing pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. Many books have moved me in various emotional or cerebral ways — All the King’s Men, The War of the End of the World, Crime and Punishment, Fight Club, and Snow Crash come to mind — but it’s only slightly hyperbolic to suggest that Moby-Dick was a book I experienced rather than merely read.
Moby-Dick is both sentimental and naïve art, both a cinematic tale and a powerful polemic. Its sensibilities are far more modern, its prose far more radical, than I could ever have imagined. Two Melville scholars writing together claim that the book includes “nautical, biblical, Homeric, Shakespearean, Miltonic, cetological” influences and is “alliterative, fanciful, colloquial, archaic, and unceasingly allusive.”
I say, sure, why not?
The book is also deceptively funny. It wasn’t “Call me Ishmael” that hooked me — a line so recognized that we might forget its efficient genius — but rather the pessimistic humor of Ishmael informing the reader that he sought the shelter of the high seas because his fellow human beings were becoming insufferable. He knew it was time to go when only his “strong moral principle” prevented him “from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” One can relate.
The book is about democracy, God, revenge, friendship, boats, human nature, oils, and whaling; and those thousands of words of detail about whaling read like a great work of New Journalism. Melville’s four-year stint on such vessels, beginning in 1841, gave him the knowledge that allowed for such realism.
The author famously toiled in a thankless bureaucratic job for 20 years after the publication of his masterpiece, and told his hero Nathaniel Hawthorne that though he “wrote the Gospels in this century,” he “should die in the gutter.” During his lifetime, Moby-Dick sold fewer than 4,000 copies. It wasn’t until after World War I that the book began to amass praise that would attain it great-novel status.
Now, I am in no way suggesting that it was a laid-back read. In retrospect, part of the appeal of Moby-Dick is, weirdly enough, the work and time I had to put into it. I split the task between an audiobook, a real book, and a digital, Google-preserved first edition. Sometimes I zoned out. But it allowed my mind, one corroded by years of instantaneous Internet access and social media, to embrace patience and concentration.
I’m still not above watching vapid reality shows about meth-addicted Tiger tamers. Nor am I dismissive of the compelling fare we find on streaming media — we are living in a golden age of middlebrow culture. Certainly the world doesn’t need another writer praising the virtues of Moby-Dick. And that’s not my point. Sitting here in isolation, I come to praise the elemental beauty and depth that can be found only in great works of literature. Moby-Dick demanded my attention, imagination, and time.
It may even induce me to crack open that copy of Don Quixote that’s been sitting on my shelf for the past decade.
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