Moby-Dick or, the Whale

Author Herman Melville, Herman Melville
Published 2003
Pages 654
ISBN 9780142437247
Links Goodreads


February 28th, 2021–July 17th, 2021


Ya’ll. If there was ever a classic book I felt sure to dislike, it was this one. I grew up reading the Great Illustrated Classic, which of course has just the story and none of the cetology in it. “Beware the cetology! Beware the chapters on whaling!” Thus had I always heard, and had steered my cour


February 11th, 2021–June 28th, 2021


"The best tastes are acquired tastes." Sometimes you need time to appreciate something great. I've seen this for myself with Dune (the book), Blade Runner (the movie), and coffee (the drink). But sometimes greatness puts on a muumuu and a big floppy hat and hops up and down waving its arms. It's obvious, is what I'm saying.

Despite it's reputation, Moby-Dick is one of the obvious ones.

It feels like I've been preparing to read it my whole life. I read an abridged illustrated version at 10, so I knew the plot. The language is occasionally challenging, but less so having been raised on the King James Bible. The religious, literary, and cultural references both added depths of meaning and gave touchpoints of familiarity.

Sidenote: real-world fiction (or parallel or alternate world fiction) has a huge advantage on Tolkien-esque fantasy in that it can import meaning by referencing real people, places, and events. A chef can buy a bag of flour instead of milling wheat. Computer programmers routinely import millions of lines of code written by others. Melville was able to use "Ishmael" and "Leuwenhoeck" and "Egypt" and a hundred other references to communicate more deeply than the fantasy author who has to build an entire world.

The biggest surprise to me was how funny it is. The third sentence of Chapter 1 is: "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 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." I also found it hilarious when Melville insisted St. George's dragon was a whale; when he criticized the right whale and pretended the blue whale didn't exist to elevate the sperm whale; and when he claimed the whale's spout proved its genius because deep thoughts produce steam (proof: his head always sweats when "plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon").

The prose is beautiful. Here's a few of my favorite lines:

- "Out of the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven. So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell."
- "Warmest climes but nurse the cruellest fangs: the tiger of Bengal crouches in spiced groves of ceaseless verdure."
- "As the unsetting polar star, which through the livelong, arctic, six months’ night sustains its piercing, steady, central gaze; so Ahab’s purpose now fixedly gleamed down upon the constant midnight of the gloomy crew."

I can't praise it highly enough; it's my new favorite book. Give Chapter 1 a chance and see if it hooks you too.


Random Notes:

- According to the Penguin Classics footnotes, the first printing only had two instances of "Moby-Dick": the title, and once randomly in Chapter 133. In my edition, they removed the hyphen in the text and left it only in the title.

- I noticed the following parallel passages:

Chapter 12: Queequeg was a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and the South. It is not down in any map; true places never are.
Chapter 14: Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it.

Both passages are in the first couple paragraphs of their chapter and in such close proximity, it can't be an accident.

- From Chapter 82: “Thou art as a lion of the waters, and as a dragon of the sea,” saith Ezekiel; hereby, plainly meaning a whale; in truth, some versions of the Bible use that word itself.

Interestingly (to me), the King James Version that Melville owned uses the word "whale". He must have had access to another version, probably a Geneva:

Ezekiel 32:2
KJV: Thou art like a young lion of the nations, and thou art as a whale in the seas
Geneva: Thou art like a lion of the nations, and art as a dragon in the sea