Monday, July 06, 2009


by Herman Melville
Unlike a lot of high schools, mine, in 1980s central Illinois, didn't cover a lot of "classics." And in some ways, that may have been a blessing, because I have never been more resistant to reading (especially reading assigned books (shudder)) than I was in high school. So, instead of my opinion of these musty old 19th century books being formed then, I get to discover them now, at a time in my life when no longer feel required to reject them as old and boring nor to praise them just because they're part of the canon - I can just read them, as books.

Moby-Dick has a reputation, and rightly so, for being a slog, and it was only after hearing an enthusiastic recommendation from an old friend that I even considered picking it up. I was pleased to find, as Jack Murnighan pointed out in a recent NPR piece, that much of the book is actually very funny, especially the first third, and I found myself laughing out loud at times while listening to the audiobook. The narrator is a likable guy, but a bit out of his element, and his job interview on the deck of the Pequod was one of the book's highlights for me.

Of course, soon, much to the dismay of many readers, the narrator is no longer out of his element, but is instead explaining every detail of the whaling industry. At times it's as if you've stumbled into a 19th-Century Wikipedia and are helplessly clicking on every link around the topics of Whales and Whaling. While I didn't skip any pages, there are certain times I feel okay about letting a chapter or two "wash over me," and this was definitely one of those times. The audiobook was especially good during these times, because I could tune my attention in or out, depending on my interest.

Honestly, though, I didn't find the technical parts all that dull. After a while I started to think of the novel as taking place in an alternate reality, one in which humans were endangered and animals were not, where there was still the possibility that there were real monsters out there. Read this way, Moby-Dick becomes a riveting feat of world-building fantasy.

That said, it's interesting to note that our narrator struggles with the idea that whales could, like the buffalo before them, be hunted nearly to extinction. And, unlike Captain Ahab, most of the whalemen have a difficult time believing that any whale could act with malicious intent.

It should also be said that, though Moby Dick was ahead of its time in many ways, as evidenced by the capable, racially-diverse crew of the Pequod, there are nevertheless times when the prejudices of the times reassert themselves, and the reader has to grimace a bit. And there are other sections when the beautiful language of the book sometimes gets into weird areas, for instance a section in which the whalemen rhapsodize about the wonderful feeling of sperm in their hands - meaning, of course, the oil harvested from a sperm whale. Though Melville has a wonderful sense of humor, I'm not sure this bit was meant to be funny.

No comments: