Columns > Published on January 30th, 2014

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2) Do you prefer that the books you read include lengthy descriptions of outdated marine technology and fishing methods?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

About the author

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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