Country: United States
Genre: Fiction, Nautical Fiction, Encyclopedic Fiction
Publication Year: 1851
Edition Read: Penguin Classics. 2002 cover design. Introduction by Andrew Delbanco.
First Read: No. Third read.
Academics and mad men have dedicated their lives to writing about Moby-Dick. There is nothing I can say that will add anything meaningful to the thousands of pages that have been taken up by discussion of this magical novel. Rather than a review, this blog post will instead be the story of my history with this book and why I think you should read it.
Earlier this year my wife started watching Gilmore Girls from start-to-finish on Netflix. About midway through the second season I joined her in the binge watching. After the series ended, I felt this profound sense of emptiness at the finality. I had spent weeks living with these characters – then, seemingly out of nowhere, they were gone. It had been a few years since I had felt this way about a lengthy TV series. In the age of Netflix and streaming, this has actually become a documented thing, there was a Huffington Post article about the feeling and it has even been given a name in the popular lexicon: Post-Series Depression.
To any vociferous reader though, this same feeling has been around since the dawn of the written word. For some bibliophiles, the feeling washes over him or her whenever a gripping narrative or engaging story concludes. For myself, it is a rarer occurrence. This Post-Book Depression typically only hits me when I finish a very long book. Frankly, I don’t read a lot of really long novels, or at least I haven’t since my son was born and getting a solid hour of reading a night became a miraculous feat. Lately though, as the boy has been going to bed by 8:00 and sleeping through the night like clockwork, I decided it might be time to start including some heftier volumes into my literary choices.
Moby-Dick; the definition of hefty novel, in terms of size, style and subject, left me with that sense of Post-Book Depression. This was my third time reading this magical book. Almost universally acknowledged by the literati as one of the greatest novels in Western literature, Moby-Dick is one of those books that everyone needs to read before they die. The subject of numerous film adaptations (my favorite being the late-90s BBC version with Patrick Stewart as Ahab) and pop-culture references, everyone in the English-speaking world is aware of Moby-Dick likely without even being aware of it.
I had never read this novel as an English student. I had read other works by Melville in university (“Bartleby the Scrivener” in my Intro to Literature courses and “Benito Cereno” in a 19th Century American Literature course I took that focused on American Romanticism and the Transcendentalists), but ultimately, likely due to time constraints of survey courses, Moby-Dick was always one of those books you had to read on your own.
I first read this at 19 years old, the summer before I started at UPEI. I had begun collecting the classics. I had this really nice hardcover edition published by Prospero Books that I bought at Chapters for like $5 (which I now regret selling when I purged a large lot of books in 2005). My initial reaction: this book would be really good if it was abridged and all that stuff about whaling was cut out of it. Looking back, I laugh at the philistinish reaction I had as a young man and amateur reader.
My second rip through Moby-Dick was only a few years ago, in 2013. I was flipping through the gigantic list of eBooks I had downloaded from Project Gutenberg and this one jumped out at me. This time, I really started to get the point of all the whaling minutiae in the book. Melville was doing more than just telling the story of the madman Ahab hunting the white whale that took his leg; more than just one of the most legendary man-against-nature stories ever written. Melville was striving to immerse the reader into this world of whaling. Building upon the success of his prior works, Typee and Omoo, this novel was meant to be one of the great encyclopedic novels. After this second reading, my opinion of the book was that this was an amazing nautical story with a motley crew of characters and a detailed reference work of 19th century whaling and a fascinating glimpse into what would now be called environmentalism in the pre-Darwinism world.
Now after finishing the novel for the third time, my feelings are generally the same as last time. I feel like a few more thematic points sunk in with this read: utilitarianism, racial issues, perception, hierarchy, and individual and group conscience. Each of which I’m sure have generated hundreds of academic articles and books.
In my second year of university, while I was studying at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, I took a course on American literature from the Civil War to World War I. I was in the professor’s office one day and we were discussing our favorite novels. He asked if I had ever read Moby-Dick. I told him my thoughts at the time. His response was simply a smile and a suggestion “read it again in 10 years and I guarantee you’ll feel differently.” Well Dr. Heckerl, I did, and you were right.