I just finished reading Moby Dick. For the first time. Somehow in school I was never required to read it. Somehow in all the reading I have done for my own personal pleasure since, I have never been enticed by its 800 pages. But over the last few years, there have been friends who have suggested the book to me. In fact, one friend said it was an incredibly special book for her and that I should save reading it for my retirement.
There was something really wonderful about reading this particular copy of the book on my shelf, a 1930 Random House edition of Moby Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent (see image below). There are hundreds of bold, art-decoish, black and white illustrations, at least one per each of the 135 chapters. Yes, 135 chapters. It has been a long time since I have read a book so lavishly and perfectly illustrated. The images truly affected the pace of the reading experience as well as the meaning of the words themselves in a very engaging way.
There is really no way I can write about this book at this moment and hope to do it any justice. It is way too vast, large, expansive, grand, complex. I am still reeling from this whale of an adventure. I have yet to unpack its depths. I need to read it again. And again.
Here are some quick, random responses, in no particular order, after this, my first read:
- Wow! This is truly an amazing piece of writing.
- This is not a short book. 823 pages in my edition. It is not a quick read. Many of the chapters are riffs on the whale, on the sea, on details about whale anatomy, ecology and extinction, and harvesting whale spermacetti and other valuable (for 1851) whale parts. These riffs and tangents make the book feel really modern (Melville wrote it in 1851), almost as if an idea or question or relevant distraction pops into Melville’s head and he is able to “google” the information for you and for himself.
- There is even a whole chapter on “whiteness” (Moby Dick is a white sperm whale.). How conceptually contemporary is that?!!!
- It also feels modern in the many references to texts outside the story and not just the expected references (Pliny, Plato, etc.) but also allusions to Hindu texts and gods (again pretty remarkable for 1851), as well as to obscure whaling resources.
- And speaking of allusions, at the front of the book, in a section called “Extracts,” there are 100+ quotes about the whale ranging from Shakespeare to whale songs to the Bible, and from numerous poets, diarists, scientists, and historians. (How did he do this without the help of the internet?)
- Have I mentioned that it is an engaging adventure story?
- Melville also muses on whaling in a universal way that speaks about the meaning of life and nature and obsession that still soundly connect to this 21st century, sometimes in a surprising way that totally catches the reader off-guard. And he does this in nearly every single chapter. (Remember there 135 of them!)
- Melville is very funny and sarcastic, as well (I didn’t expect this at all).
- There is some unself-conscious, matter-of-fact homo-eroticism which feels utterly modern.
- There is a great deal of cultural diversity aboard the ship, the Pequod, which is described with a genuine equanimity for the most part, especially democratic, unbiased, and even-handed for 1851.
- The language is poetic, rich, compelling; lots of ideas and metaphors and symbols.
- The language can be dense and sometimes requires rereading of passages to fully grasp them. There are some parts I still haven’t fully understood.
- The book pushes the concept of genre. Parts of the book are written as a play with stage directions included.
- This book dives into history, art, science, philosophy, religion, psychology.
- This is one of the most intriguing, original, and inspired pieces of writing I have ever encountered. It almost feels as if I would need to write a book at least as long as Moby Dick to fully disentangle its meaning. With great pleasure I will need to voyage through this text many times to plumb its exhilarating depths. xxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx