[This is a segment I used to do on my old blog about unusual or indie titles that I had read and I’m thinking about resurrecting it here. No one would be foolish enough to call Moby Dick “indie” but it is pretty unusual.]
Where do I even start with a book like this? The problem with Moby Dick is that it’s one of those books that’s capital “L” Literature. Everyone has heard of it, and even though most people haven’t read it, we all have some idea of what it is in our minds, and we’ve formed an opinion based on that idea.
Moby Dick is like the Bible.
No really, it is.
First off, it’s long. Like really long. I wrote a post about how I was reading Moby Dick at the beginning of the year, and I only just now finished it this week. I could have finished it sooner if I’d abandoned all other books for the duration, but no matter which way you slice it it’s a slog. And that length is something of a barrier to entry. You can sit down and read The Old Man and the Sea in an afternoon (and you should), but Moby Dick requires commitment.
You’re not just going to breeze through from chapter to chapter, propelled forward by burning need to know what happens next. This is something you have to decide to do, something you have to work at. Neither God nor Herman Melville saw fit to fill their books with tension, and while both have their moments of high action, both also have long passages of what seem like meaningless drivel to the “casual” reader.
Speaking of the so-called casual reader that’s another problem with talking about this book. It’s hard to tell people how great it is without sounding like a complete snob. When someone complains about all the “extraneous” whaling and sailing chapters, it’s hard not to say, “No, listen, you just don’t get it,” like a condescending jerk.
There is a whole chapter about the history of the crows nest. It’s not a short chapter either.
But what you have to understand when reading Moby Dick is that Herman Mellville isn’t just telling a story about some men chasing a whale. He’s constructing a model of the world writ small, spinning out the idea that this tiny ship in the middle of cruel ocean is a mirror of the world itself. There are slaves and their masters and their masters. There are men of conviction and cavalier hedonists. There is cruelty and kindness, fortune and misfortune, chance and fate, all of these and more spun together by the details, the seemingly mundane minutia, magnified and made meaningful.
And woven within this magnified model of the world we find the uncommon stories of common men. Pip the cabin boy, left to float in the open ocean for hours that must have seemed an eternity, driven out of his mind by the crushing solitude. Starbuck the first mate, trapped by his loyalty to a mad captain, and his faith in an apathetic God. And Ahab, the mad captain himself, driven and driving inexorably toward a fruitless and bitter end.
The certainty that this quest will lead to all of their deaths grows to a crescendo of fatal terror. But in the final hour a breeze carrying the scent of some far off meadow reaches him, and in what must be the most heartbreaking moment of the book he comes to himself, sees the folly of his obsession, realizes the imbalance of his priorities, and yet cannot bring himself to give up the doomed chase.
All of this is heightened by a use of language that is both masterful and seemingly effortless. Scenes of hope and hatred, moments of gore and glory are all rendered so perfectly that there were times that I was brought to the edge of tears by the pure beauty of Melville’s words.
This is a sailor’s scripture, truth and beauty bound up together in a tome as deep and endless and changeable as the sea itself. Not everyone will appreciate it, for it demands something of its readers that some may not be willing to give up. It is a work that refuses to be taken lightly; but those who dedicate themselves to its study will discover wonders that their poor land-bound brethren can scarcely imagine.