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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Driven as the Whale: Reading Moby Dick down the shore (and other places)

I have wanted to read Moby Dick for awhile now, but the classic was not always on my list. In high school I was made to read "Billy Budd", a Herman Melville short story that I loathed. In undergrad, though, I read his "Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby, the Scribner"-- my harsh opinions of Melville abated. (I highly recommend the novella "Benito Cereno" if you haven't read it yet.)

But this post is about his Moby Dick. It's the whale of it, really; the extent to which whales fascinate humans is historical and addictive. If you ever meet someone with any sort of strong feeling towards the leviathan, it is quite easy to get swept up in obsession. Moby Dick asserts this, though I admit the book was not what I expected.

I expected the chase, the hunt and the obsession, but not 1) in such intricate detail and 2) in any way I could relate to as a non-whaler. The book does make one think about whales, either by reinforcing and expanding ideas, thoughts, fears, that one has already have, or creating these. Whales are intricate creatures. I believe them to be at least as smart as us if not smarter. I think that it's their hugeness that hinders their abilities, somehow. I will not espouse my beliefs on the whale any further here, but suggest instead that you read Moby Dick and come to your own conclusions about whales.

Please do not pick this book up expecting an adventure-- it is an adventure, but the bulk of the book is information. What a whaling boat needs before it sets sail, what the boat looks like, what a whale looks like, what a certain kind of whale's head looks like compared to another kind, an existential dissection of why the white in the white whale is perhaps what makes the white whale most frightening, how to extract oil from a whale, what the carpenter's job on a whale ship is... I could go on. Melville's novel is a novel of obsession. Of Ahab's obsession with the white whale, yes, but also of obsession in general. It is a novel of detail. It is a novel of intricacy. It is a novel I had to read slowly at times, and at other times could not stop turning its pages.

I kept dog-earing pages because Melville is highly quotable. What makes this book a classic, and what took me a few hundred pages to realize, is that Moby Dick is not just about its characters or the hunt or the obsession or the whale-- all important qualities, though, as discussed above-- but Moby Dick is also about what it means to be human. Not what it "meant" to be human, either. A classic is defined as a book that stands the test of time, and what is important in this definition is determining why any classic novel has withstood this test. Moby Dick has because it's a document of the whaling industry in the mid 1800's, yes, and because its characters are at their core ineluctably human. I related to things that Melville was saying, though the book was written over a century ago. Maybe this is what makes a book powerful to my personal literary sensibilities, but as a constant, diligent and solicitous, even, reader, what is important to me is what is important to good readers. Moby Dick is about being human in the same way that all incredible books must be.

As I was dog-earing my pages, I sometimes would tweet the quotation that caught my eye if it was short enough to tweet and if I felt like it needed sharing. It started because I began reading this while I was in Ocean City, NJ for a week and a half. I thought it was an apropos book to read on the beach. As someone who is not just a little afraid of the ocean and its creatures, perhaps I was feeling brave in my decision. But fears are things to confront, not to let sit tight. Melville's classic whale-hunting novel is not your standard easy-going "beach reading", but I found the copy I read at the Boardwalk bookstore and, ultimately, found my choice apposite. An example of one of my tweets:[ "a noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! all noble things are touched with that." #MobyDick pg 78 / sun in my eyes on the porch in OC. via web ] (I think that tweeting quotes from books I read is something that I will continue to do, especially as I read through classic novels. If this interests you, here is a link to my twitter page.)

I continue to see whales everywhere. On a man's belt and a woman's wallet at work, on a girl's bathing suit a day I returned to OC. I notice whales in songs, in people's gchat statuses, in the news. (In fact, while I was reading the novel, they named a whale after Melville.) I would like to meet a whale someday. I would like to tell him or her that I'm sorry.

3 comments:

  1. Always wanted to finish Moby Dick; still haven't.

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  3. That's awesome, I'm about 80% complete doing the read-along with the Infinite Zombies blog/book club, you should check that out, it's been great, really good posts and comments! Also powermobydick(.com?.net?) is a good place to go for more info, annotations, and MD out in the world! Ishmael is a trip for me, such a silly and "unreliable narrator," which I adore. My bf and I are headed to Cape May, NJ in hopes of seeing some type of leviathan, so it's been a whale of a summer so far, LOL :)

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