Why I Read Moby-Dick
Updated: Nov 7, 2020
The sea's horizon awes me, but in general I'm not a big fan of the ocean or sailing or whales. I also prefer reading books primarily by females, for females, or about females, so why on earth would I read Moby-Dick?
I had a few reasons before, and now since reading it and reading Nathaniel Philbrick's book on why one should read Moby-Dick, I have even more. (The latter was recommended to me by Austin Kleon in his newsletter.)
My original reason was that Moby-Dick is my favorite English teacher's favorite book. Another was that Herman Melville's 200th birthday was this August. Another was that Melville is a local author, and he actually wrote most of Moby-Dick at his home in the Berkshires.
Even with these convincing motivations, I needed to choose it for my book club before I sat down to read it. I then underestimated the amount of time it would take, and so only finished the book the morning of the meeting. I had expected to be the only one attending, but the meeting was terrific, with five people besides myself and well over an hour of dense discussion.
Although I totally rushed through a book that is mostly noted for its rich and poetic language (who's ever heard of speed-reading poetry?!), I still gained more than expected.
Although the book is named for and about a whale, it's also about philosophy, religion, morality, politics - just to name a few. I love relational novels, and while the story doesn't revolve around a character plot, character is central. Melville's writing is bursting with ideas, even on seemingly mundane topics, and reminds one of Shakespeare, who not only inspired him, but whom Melville dared to dream of surpassing in crafting language.
Here's an example of his stirring descriptions from the chapter "The Mast-Head," on watching for whales from the top of the mast: "There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever."
I could imagine hanging there lulled by and one with the sea via the "gently rolling ship," and then being startled awake by the precipitous drop and perilous position. "Descartian vortices," which I had to look up, refer to René Descartes' theory of "space [being] entirely filled with matter in various states, whirling about the sun." What a terrifying thing over which to hover! Melville even gives us the horrific image of what it would be like to drop from that frightening height.
Melville's passion for the sea is contagious, and after reading chapters on the history, biology, and even whiteness of the sperm whale, I'm now fascinated by these previously mind-dulling subjects. But if you're looking for adventure, I'd read just the end, or maybe an abridged version, because the action is gripping but sparse.
Even if the idea of reading a whole 500-page novel on whale-hunting doesn't thrill you, like it didn't for me, Moby-Dick is worth it.