I did it.
I read Moby-Dick.
The behemoth. The leviathan. The five-pound doorstop of Mighty Literature. Mr. Lapinski, I’m sorry I didn’t do it for AP English summer reading in 2010. I wrote you an angry paper about The Fountainhead instead— and to think I could have treated you to five, single-spaced pages overflowing with newfound love for nautical vessels and clam chowder. It is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, indeed.
To be fair, I don't think I would have appreciated this book as much at 16 as I do now, having been "around the block" a few times, as they say. Perspective comes with age, and I'd argue you need a healthy dose of life experience for Melville's themes to resonate. Admittedly, the language might intimidate hesitant readers, but once you settle into the energetic vocabulary, Moby-Dick's humor and depth start to shine.
High School Hannah would have found this sooo pretentious. But as it turns out, it’s also pretentious to dismiss a book because “pretentious people like Moby-Dick.” Happily, a Very Pompous Friend of mine casually dubbed it “hilarious" one day, which prompted me to reevaluate the reasons I thought it was a ridiculous thing to read. Here’s five reasons why you should give it a fair shot too:
1. The writing is hilarious...
...if you open your mind to that possibility. Obviously, everyone has different senses of humor, but you’ll never find the jokes if you insist this book has only Serious Themes about Fate, Insanity, and Our Place In the Universe. Which it does, but our plucky narrator Ishmael approaches life’s twists and turns with humor, so why shouldn’t we? Have you ever had an awkard dinner with your boss? There's a scene for that. Do you HATE ginger? Soon, you'll be calling it "lucifer matches" too! If it helps convince you, at one point narwhals are literally referred to as “the unicorn whale,” which sounds exactly like something the Internet came up with.
2. This book is begging to be read aloud.
Firstly, I must highlight Melville's beautiful descriptions of the nature; they are perfection. I can clearly see "waves rolling by like scrolls of silver" and dramatic shadows caused by the "sloping afternoon sunlight." It just rolls off the tongue.
And then we are blessed with Ishmael's alliterative storytelling, which absolutely made this book for me. His narration feels like your favorite cousin talking about the crazy thing that happened to him last week (at least until the back half of the book, when things start to sway toward impending doom).
Stop reading silently and say these phrases out loud in your most melodramatic voice:
- Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison.
- Flask, alas! was a butterless man!
It's fun, right!?
3. Herman Melville is a NERD.
And I’m a nerd. So if you’re a nerd, we’ll all three of us probably get along. Look, I understand that lengthy deviations on whale skeleton dimensions RIGHT in the middle of a plot don’t exactly help this book’s infamy, but our dear Herman is so self-aware it’s hard not to love him. He starts Chapter 45, “The Affidavit,” like so:
“So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affair.”
In other words, “I know I keep straying from the plot to regail you with facts about sperm whales...but guys, I really, really have tell you one last thing about sperm whales! It’s vital—I promise!—to know about their long history of violent revenge! There’s historical evidence! Please, I have citations!”
4. It’s an adventure story!
Ultimately, even with its infamous digressions on the minutiae of whaling and other meandering musings, this book is a seafaring adventure! Obviously there's the main quest: Ahab's ill-advised revenge against the whale that chomped off his leg. But we get a lot of escapades along the way...
Unlikely best friends Ishmael and Queequeg trick old geezers into letting a pagan onboard a Christian ship. We see them experience the joys of Nantucket clam chowder for the first time. We get ominous vibes from the "cracked" Elijah who warns the pair not to sail with Cap'n Ahab—lest they forfeit their very souls!
Ishamel also introduces us to the motley crew aboard the Pequod, who entertain us as they adventure around the globe: Savvy Starbuck. Loveable Stubb and his pipe. Tashtego yelling "There she blows! She blows! She blows!" from the mast-head. The ship's carpenter making Ahab a new leg. Cute sharks. Party boats! Men leaping from their whaling boat to avoid getting run over by their own ship. This story's got it all!
5. It's funny until it's not.
Moby-Dick is one of the truest books I've ever read. Not just in the sense that this could happen (which technically it did to the whaleship Essex, which you’ll remember if you read last year’s Big Read title In the Heart of the Sea), but in the character’s actions and in the themes that reflect what we all grapple with. Death, obsession with the incomprehensible, desperately trying to understand what it all means—anything that was once meandering all makes sense at the end. If you like the outdoors, history, or wrestling with life's big questions, Moby-Dick may just be the book for you.
It's okay to give up on Moby-Dick because you don't like it. But I'd encourage you to give it a solid try. Lean into its meditative and episodic qualities and experience the lucious prose at your own pace. It took me four months to finish because I didn't want to rush it, and I'm so glad I went with my gut. Even if the characters aren't having one, treat it like a day at the beach—plan on being there for a long time, breathe slowly, and enjoy the feeling of a fresh wave rushing over you.