Culling The Classics: Moby-Dick

Image by Tony Millionaire

This was a terrible idea.

The Book

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, by Herman Melville (Richard Bentley [Britain]/Harper & Brothers [US], 1851).

The Numbers

Harshly criticized during the author's life, but known today as one of—if not the—foremost works in American literature; has influenced virtually every American writer of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as many writers abroad, and inspired some of the most profound works of our time (and a really good comic book); Goodreads rating of 3.38.

The Spoiler-Free Skinny

Reading Moby-Dick is all about having read Moby-Dick.

The epic—and boy, do I mean epic—tale of one man's monomaniac search for the white whale that bit off his leg, though that's probably the most extreme example of "long story short" that's ever been written.

You'll Love It

A quiz:

1) Do you frequently enjoy long sea voyages? Y/N?

2) Do you prefer that the books you read include lengthy descriptions of outdated marine technology and fishing methods? Y/N?

3) Do you wish to be considered "well read"? Y/N?

If you answered "yes" to any or all of these, then meet me in the "Read It Or Leave It?" section.

You'll Loathe It

A(nother) quiz:

1) Do you hate paragraph-long sentences? Y/N?

2) Do you despise tangents in novels that go on for pages and pages, sometimes even multiple chapters, contributing little or nothing to the plot? Y/N?

3) Did you a) watch Blackfish, and did it b) make you cry? Y/N?

If you answered "yes" to any or all of these, run. Run far, far away. Don't look back. Don't listen to that high school English teacher calling after you, extolling the virtues of Melville's poetic voice, hoping beyond hope that he will somehow convince you of the genius that is the extended metaphor of the Leviathan.

Read It Or Leave It?

Seriously, though, folks, this one's a doozy. In all fairness, I should start by saying that I have yet to finish Moby-Dick. It is a very, very, very long book, and it's exceedingly dense, and despite the fact that I've been reading it for almost two months, I'm only about halfway through. The thing is, though: I don't think that matters. When you're 300+ pages into a book like Moby-Dick, you already know if you like it or not. Sadly, unfortunately, terrifyingly, ::insert your favorite depressing adverb here::-ingly, I think I like it.

Which sucks. I don't want to like this book. I spent the better part of the last two decades smugly ignoring this book. I would have happily never read Moby-Dick ever in my life, but like the spectral marine mammal that haunts Captain Ahab's every waking thought, the book itself became my "Culling The Classics" white whale. I had to do it. I had to read Moby-Dick. Don't you see? I'm doing this for you. For you!

This is an incredibly difficult book to recommend, because there are a lot of things to love/hate about it. Obviously it's long, and it's dense, and it was written in that pre-Civil War American English that makes people swoon/puke over Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Melville and Hawthorne were basically BFFs, btw.) Melville writes the longest, most complicated sentences ever, but hey, maybe that's your thing. Maybe you only enjoy sentences if they provide the perfect opportunity for a game of Subject-Predicate Look and Find. Maybe you're the kind of person who is enthralled by an entire chapter devoted to a severely outdated and/or entirely fictional zoological classification of whales, too. Maybe you even get amped up to read several pages describing the various kinds of rope onboard the Pequod, the ship upon which Captain Ahab pursues his massive marine nemesis, Moby-Dick. And it's entirely possible that you're a huge fan of quaint historical racism, barbaric wildlife butchery, violent scenes of seafaring mayhem, and endless allusions to the inky black waters that await us in death.

Ugh, because apparently I am. Kind of. It's complicated. I hate so many things about this book, but I'm really enjoying it at the same time. I'm not giving up. I fully plan on finishing this beast, because I genuinely think that Melville's prose—God help me for even thinking this—is so beautiful. Seriously, it's extremely poetic, and not in that way that contemporary novelists think they're being poetic when they write about cigarettes and streetlights and the sad reality of the mundane. Moby-Dick is 600+ pages of basically nothing but ocean, and it's so peaceful and terrible and awe-inspiring and violent and wondrous and mystical and phenomenal and majestic and calm and ebullient and—no, I'm gonna stop right there; no one should ever use the word "ebullient" unironically.

Final Verdict

Reading this book has almost nothing to do with the book itself. I can't in good conscience recommend this to anyone who I simply think might enjoy it, because a) it's too long for me to punish someone with in that way, and b) I honestly don't even know who that person would be. I can't think of anyone whom I could look at and think, "Oh yeah, she would DEFINITELY love Moby-Dick. Absolutely." Maybe if I knew a longshoreman, or like a retired pirate or something, I could recommend this book to that person.

No, reading Moby-Dick is all about having read Moby-Dick. There are people out there who love this damn thing, people who have graduate degrees in these 600 pages. I think that's insane, but we live in an insane world. If you want to be someone who actively contributes to the American literary conversation, a conversation dictated primarily by those kinds of people, then you have to read this book. That's just kind of how it is. (Let's work on changing that sometime soon hopefully.)

Luckily, if you're not in it for the achievement, if you only read what you like when you like and the great critics and conversationalists can suck it, then you are completely off the hook, so to speak (whale-hunting humor, FTW). Do yourself a favor and avoid this book like a tropical storm. Board up your windows; don't let the great watery beast in. The rest of us must sink or swim on our own. Pray that God delivers us Jonah-esque from the jaws of the Leviathan.

Image of Moby-Dick (Bantam Classics)
Author: Herman Melville
Price: $5.95
Publisher: Bantam Classics (1981)
Binding: Mass Market Paperback, 704 pages
Brian McGackin

Column by Brian McGackin

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

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Comments

Mike Horning's picture
Mike Horning January 30, 2014 - 2:17pm

I read Moby Dick in the third grade. Why? I had heard of it, supposed to be good, probably saw part of the John Huston film. I remember almost nothing about it except the scene where they hack some blubber of a whale carcass and fry it up right on deck.

Brian McGackin's picture
Brian McGackin from NJ/LA is reading Between the World and Me January 30, 2014 - 4:52pm

I believe it. There's like an entire chapter on the proper way to cook whale. Two, I think.

victoriajakes's picture
victoriajakes January 30, 2014 - 5:46pm

I read Moby Dick in high school, when I was 17. I took a class on it, just Moby Dick, because it fit in my schedule. I knew almost nothing about it, and was pretty sure it was about a talking whale and his friendship with a sea captain. I have no idea where that impression came from.

I'm pretty sure I'm the only person in the class that finished it. I cried through the ending (helped that I went in spoiler free, and had no idea how it would turn out). It is my favorite book of all time.

SO while I definitely agree it is not for everyone, it is possible to derive intense satisfaction and philisophical epiphany from Moby Dick without being a sailor, or compelled by the style (I can't slog through Hawthorne at all, for whatever reason). It's a book about being lost, and the obsessive search for meaning in an empty world. I think it appealed to me so much as a 17 year old because I was depressed, adrift in my life, and without direction, very much like Ishmael. I think it appeals to me now because I'm super into finding the things I love and obessesing over them until they destory everything in a burst of poetic tragedy. Also, the homoeroticism. I've always been into that. (Melville and Hawthorne were definitely more than BFFs, in that Melville was definitely in love with Hawthorne, as is apparent in his letters to him.)

(I shipped Ishmael and Queequeg and called them Ishy and QQ and doodled little cartoon whales all over my notebook.)

If you ever get the chance, the New Bedford Whaling Museum does a 25-hour Moby Dick read aloud marathon, where a bunch of people get together and read Moby Dick start to finish under the whale skeletons. It's sort of a magical thing, even to sit through just an hour or so, because you can see how intensely the book touches some people. Sure, a lot of people just can't get through it, and that's legit (skip Cetology). But I hesistate to not recommend it, as my own love for it was so unexpected and so consuming.

Also, A+ Blackfish reference.

AnneTibbets's picture
AnneTibbets January 30, 2014 - 6:52pm

I have started and stopped Moby Dick twice! I can't seem to get through it, which drives me a bit crazy given the fact I consider myself reasonably well read.

Do me a favor and recap Tess D'Uberville next, because I can't seem to finish that one either.

Pathetic.

OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children January 31, 2014 - 3:15am

Have not read this, but I understand the use of minute details in describing the ship and it's fittings. While obsolete now the clippers and whalers of then were the Millenium Falcons of today. If you had gone to Moby-Con back then you'd have found a bunch of Dicky's somewhere arguing over Sheepshank v. Sheetbend. 

Jeff Sollars's picture
Jeff Sollars from Anacortes, wa is reading General Systems theory January 31, 2014 - 4:37am

So yeah, I read it. I enjoyed it. Now after reading this essay, I feel kind of bad for some reason.

Once upon a time there was no TV. Attention spans were longer than a  Budwieser commercial. (Bear with me I'm almost done.)

Oh never mind I forgot what I was talking about. Good book.

 

dustorusto's picture
dustorusto January 31, 2014 - 5:19pm

That chapter that is "devoted to a severely outdated and/or entirely fictional zoological classification of whales," is Melville commenting on the institutionalized racism and the bogus scientific claims that were used to back it up. 

Great read, though. One of my favorites.