At any given time I have a stack of books I’d like to be reading. The pace with which I add titles to my reading list is always more rapid than my ability to consume them. By the time I retire it is likely that a Mount Everest of unread books will reside in my library.
I picked up a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick approximately a decade ago. It sat on my bookshelf, between a collection of Hemmingway’s short stories and Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Finally a series of events prompted me to begin reading the book. Before reading Moby Dick I knew the first line (“Call me Ishmael”), three characters (Ishmael, Captain Ahab, and Moby Dick), two themes (whaling and obsession), and that Melville’s writing got tedious at times. I did not know how the story ended, and I carefully avoided finding that out.
The first event that prompted me toward reading Moby Dick was an AT&T BlackBerry Torch commercial.
I saw this commercial several times and it reminded me that I intended to read Moby Dick. It also made me curious about Moby Dick’s fate at the end of the book. Then I read Second Nature, in which Michael Pollan references Melville’s fixation on the whiteness of the whale. This heightened my curiosity. Soon after this Moby Dick entered a conversation I was involved in over dinner on a Sunday afternoon. Strong opinions about the book were shared, which reminded me that I had no opinion because the book sat unread on my shelf. All of those events combined to motivate me to pick up the book.
When I start reading a book I like to withhold judgment for as long as possible. Sometimes, however, I can’t help myself. Before I finished the first page of Moby Dick I was extremely biased by one sentence (it is a long sentence indeed, but the first part is what grabbed me):
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral procession I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. [italics added]
When I finished reading this sentence I stopped. I read it again. And again. The line “. . . a damp, drizzly November in my soul. . .” resonated with me. At that moment I knew that no matter how the remaining 478 pages of the book turned out, I liked it.
Now that I’ve finished the book, returned to the dogeared pages I marked for re-reading, and thought about it, here is my verdict.
Moby Dick contains glimmers of brilliance and oceans of the mundane. It illustrates the danger of writing about something near and dear, as sailing and whaling were to Melville. Some of the detail and discussion about whales and whaling goes far beyond what the average reader wishes to know. At times this information interferes with the plot of the story.
Two things in this book particularly stirred up my thoughts. First, is a scene in which Father Mapple is preaching a sermon based on the story of Jonah. He delivers this line “And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” Second, is the theme of obsession that exists early in the book but becomes a crushing crescendo at the end. When I put the book down after reading the final page the first thing that crossed my mind was: Am I Captain Ahab and is a PhD my Moby Dick? This was followed with thoughts about the consequences of obsession, the impact it has on others, the perspective that time and distance give, the odds of finding an individual whale in the ocean, and curiosity if white sperm whales really exist.
I feel it is worth mentioning the most humorous sentence I encountered in Moby Dick, one that prompted me to laugh: “Top-heavy was the ship as a dinner-less student with all Aristotle in his head.”
Moby Dick is not one of my favorite books but I found things in it to appreciate. If the first page had not gripped me so strongly I’m not sure what my final verdict would be.