Chasing Moby Dick: A Reader's Guide to Catching The White Whale
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Name a book that you loved, but struggled to read.
For me, Moby Dick was that book.
I began reading it 15 years ago as something to do while putting my daughter to sleep. The first chapter hooked me with Ishmael's quiet desperation. He's a man who heads out to sea whenever he feels "a damp, drizzly November" in his soul.
Why did I start reading Moby Dick? I'll be honest. It had nothing to do with its reputation as a difficult book or because it's considered by some to be The Great American Novel. All of those reasons are peachy for someone looking to climb some treacherous literary mountain, but my interest in Moby Dick came from the metal band Mastodon. The band released a concept album loosely based on Moby Dick called Leviathan. I remember reading an interview with the group where the drummer talked about how reading the book on tour inspired the album. What caught my attention was when he mentioned how the entire middle of the book is mostly about the minutia of whaling. That intrigued me as any art wrapped in strange details often does.
Like Ishmael's pull to the sea, I would pick up Moby Dick from time to time, read a few chapters, then put it back on the shelf. I didn't read Moby Dick consistently for 15 years. I'd read a couple of pages, put it aside for a year or two, go back, reread, put it back down. Something kept pulling me back.
On the night that I finally finished Moby Dick, my daughter, now 16, was driving my car with her newly acquired driver's license!
It wasn't until two years ago that I decided to finish it. I started at the beginning and read a large chunk of the book before putting it down. The great thing about Moby Dick is that you can set it aside for a month or two, and jump right back into it. This time, it was different. The further I delved into the book, the more I loved it.
Moby Dick is a 'love it or hate it' affair.
The book's structure, with its minimal focus on story and detailed chapters on whaling, is not for everyone. Moby Dick is a time-capsule of life in the 1800s. It's complicated, funny, philosophical, and maddening. The meditative whaling sections become a comforting experience, like getting under a blanket you always know is warm.
The book itself is a White Whale.
You shouldn't force yourself to read Moby Dick. I would have loathed reading it in high school! I can't imagine my 16-year old self suffering through chapters on whale paintings and the consistency of whale sperm (cue the Beavis and Butthead snickering). Read it when you're ready. I had to wait until I was older to appreciate Moby Dick.
Not only do I appreciate Moby Dick, but it's also become my favorite book of all time.
As I neared the end of the book, I asked myself: Why do I love this book so much? It's dense, wordy, and quite the slog in the middle. Yes, all of these things are true, but it's also quite funny. The relationship between Ishmael and the savage Queequeg is, in my opinion, the first buddy-comedy! They are the original odd-couple with Ishmael grappling to understand Queequeg's strange ways. For all their differences, Ishmael admires Queequeg, resulting in the immortal line: "Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian."
Moby Dick appeals to me for other reasons. As someone who tends to vanish down the rabbit hole when it comes to my interests, the chapters that dig into whaling recall of my obsessions with synthesizers and fountain pens. When I'm interested in something, I dive in, and so does Melville.
There's something about Moby Dick that inspires creativity in its readers. As I mentioned, the metal band Mastodon wrote and recorded an entire concept album called Leviathan.
Yes, metal bands have a penchant for taking historical and literary tales and turning them into music. Still, even avant-garde artists like Laurie Anderson have created works around Moby Dick. And let's not forget the subtly-named alternative act The Evangentials and their homage to Moby Dick.
Artist Matt Kish illustrated an entire book of art dedicated to Moby Dick. He created a piece of art based around a line of text from each page in the book, resulting in the sea-beast-sized coffee table book, Moby Dick - In Pictures.
Let's not forget the video game, Nantucket, the song by Led Zeppelin, and the fountain pen designed after Ahab's Leg!
But what of the deeper meaning of Moby Dick? On the surface, it's a tale of obsession and revenge, camaraderie, and survival. Yet, it's the tales' reflective layers that draw you into its murky depths.
Moby Dick carries the dichotomy of loving it and finding it difficult to read. About halfway through the back and forth of character story mixed with whaling history, just past the chapter on cetology, a notorious bit on book classification disguised as a whale library, we're gifted this bit on Captain Ahab and his almost maniacal hunt for Moby Dick.
"Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and almost feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form…"
Here, the book opens up and becomes honest with the reader about the very nature of its existence. The story chapters grab you. It leaves you to ponder for pages, reading about whale classification and ship mast history. You wonder if what you're reading is genius or madness. When you think you've grasped onto the book itself, it transforms in your hands, chapter by chapter, each one a stand alone. By its very nature, Moby Dick says, you can put me down for days, weeks, years even, but I'll cling to you. I'll stay with you until you conquer me.
"How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man's ire - by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be - what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life, all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go."
Then, we can revisit the opening line of the book: "Call me Ishmael." Call me anything, this narrative says, but let's choose Ishmael, for it's as good a name as any. Reading only a few lines down on page one, the narrator lets the reader in on a secret.
"When I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul… I quietly take to the ship… almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings toward the ocean with me."
If you're finding comfort, meditation, or even madness in these pages, then is it possible that Melville's classic is something you must conquer, too?
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