Monday, June 30, 2014

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (A Whale of a Book)

Moby-Dick By Herman Melville was a whale of a challenge.  This was one of the few books that had defeated me in the past. I had started it years ago and just couldn’t get into it. I found it overly wordy and dry. It was like a mouthful of crackers with no water in sight. The more I read, the more it pulled me down into the dark, deep abyss of boredom. It was close to 500 pages of Benadryl in print. Yawn—and I didn’t even get far into it.  Then, I did the unthinkable—I just gave up.  I moved on. I pushed it out of my mind, replaced it with other books. But way, way back in the caverns of my little brain, it nagged at me. Like Captain Ahab and the whale, I just couldn’t let it go. I felt like a loser. To be honest, there are many books I didn’t like at the beginning—many books that didn’t really give me a reason to continue.  But I stuck with them, and in the end I liked almost all of them.  Yet I had given up on Moby-Dick.   

Years later, something clicked, and I knew I was ready to face that big “Dick” again. I ordered the book and braced myself.  When my husband saw it, he laughed and said I
wouldn’t do it. That just made me more determined. I mean, there had to be something to this critically acclaimed tome.  Everyone knows about Moby-Dick.  The opening line is famous:  “Call me Ishmael.”  It’s right up there with “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” THE giant coffee company is even named after one of the characters—Starbuck.  No more excuses.  I just knew if I really gave it a chance, I would like it in the end—so I finally hunkered down to do the big deed. My odyssey began with buoyant optimism.  I spent weeks with Moby-Dick in my bed at night, but I’m sorry to report that my expectations soon sank like a stone. Each night I kept hoping he would perform, but half of the time he just put me to sleep. 

I say half of the time, because half of the book was actually good. The story of Captain Ahab and his crew looking for the whale that chewed the captain’s leg off was an interesting adventure.  The other half was nap-inducing.  It was a scientific, technical dissertation on the anatomy of whales, the skeletal system, cranial oils, species classification, etc., interspersed with superfluous, tedious tangents on things like the thickness, elasticity, and durability of Manila vs. hemp lines; what pictures and paintings depict the whales correctly; and even a chapter devoted to Ishmael’s disdain for the color white.  Unfortunately, these chapters were intertwined with the story. They were barnacles that clung onto the book.  

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab
Moby-Dick was two, two—two books in one.  And while that may have been a good advertising campaign for Certs® “Two, two—two mints in one,” it did nothing to enhance this book.  In fact, it weighed it down like a big anchor.  Had the story been separated from the extraneous lessons as it should have been, I might have found my romp with Moby-Dick more enjoyable, possibly even overlooked the prolific use of reviling, archaic words like “thee,” “ye,” “thou,” “thy,” and “aye.” I may just have chalked it up as salty patois—“sailor-speak,” as it were.

For those of you who really don’t know what the book is
about—Moby-Dick is narrated by Ishmael, a man who wants, no, a man who NEEDS to get back out on sea for the sake of his own sanity. The journey/book starts out in New Bedford where Ishmael shares a bed with a purplish, yellow, tattooed, baldish, head-hunting, cannibal, harpooner named Queequeg (due to the fact that the inn was completely booked to capacity). The next day they make their way to Nantucket and soon sail on the whaling ship Pequod led by the revenge-obsessed Captain Ahab. Old Moby-Dick took Ahab’s leg in a previous tour of duty.  “Vengeance is mine,” saith Ahab.  He’s out to get him—till death due them part.  And someone is definitely going down.  Spoiler Alert: The end is a mix of The Perfect Storm and Titanic minus the beautiful people like George, Mark, or Leo to smooth over the pain.  But, I’ve said too much. You’ll have to read it yourself.

Although this novel now sits among other books on my shelves, it isn’t quite like the rest.  It is far more than a pretty book that I’ve read and appreciated (and even with such a dire report, I have to acknowledge that I did appreciate this book and do not regret reading it).  But Moby-Dick is also a shiny trophy in my library—proudly displayed in recognition of my triumph. As a mental athlete, I endured, overcame, and prevailed over one tough opponent. I conquered the book that battled the big, white whale! 

Are you ready to face the whale? Or have you already braved that book? I was thinking of starting a Moby-Dick club—kind of like the Mickey Mouse club without the ears and smiles.  This would be an exclusive society of readers who have made their way through the book. I just couldn’t come up with a catchy tune to go along with it. I got as far as “M—O—B”—because everyone needs a good challenge….” Then I gave up and created a bookmark instead (above)—a paper trophy to put in your copy of Moby-Dick. Just save to a Word document and print.   Let me know when you’ve conquered the book and what you thought about it. 

As with so many classic books, you can find the full version online:

Side Note:
One more thing, then I’ll stop my Melvillian ramblings.  After I finished the book, I read an article my husband saved about Moby-Dick in “Mental Floss” magazine. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t fully embrace Herman’s “metaphysical monsterpiece.” The reviewers’ and public reception of the book sunk poor Melville.  Although he had previously had literary successes, this book was whole-heartedly panned—so much so, that Melville gave up writing and became a customs inspector for the remainder of his life. Fast forward half a century after his death and critics saw the book in a different light—one of skillful prose blended with allegories, a riveting story, and a side dish of helpful facts. (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.) Lo and behold, the critics’ raves buoy-ed the book back to life and into the classic books hall of fame.

Happy Reading,  


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