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It blows (half of the time at least)
on 7 May 2012
One of the most famous and celebrated novels ever written, Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" is a towering novel in world literature whose legendary story of the doomed whaling ship the Pequod setting off with its mad Captain Ahab at the helm to destroy the fabled white whale Moby-Dick, is so well known that most people who've never read the book know what it's about.
I was one of these people and having now read it, I can say that that's a pretty succinct summary of the book. That said, there are lots of moments in the book I wasn't aware of and was surprised to discover in reading it.
First off, I approached this book knowing most of the characters and the general story already so it was great to read the most famous opening lines in literature - "Call me Ishmael" - and to be introduced to the familiar cast of characters I'd never met before. From Ishmael to Queequeg, to Starbuck, the Pequod and Ahab, I found it thrilling to meet them one by one and to find subtleties in their characters that you won't know unless you read the book.
But I was surprised at how gay (as in homosexual) the novel is. The first 100 pages takes place in Nantucket where Ishmael hasn't signed up to the Pequod yet and is waiting around for a commission. He takes a room in an overbooked inn agreeing to share the bed with a "savage" called Queequeg. Not that sharing a bed with a man is gay exactly but Ishmael and Queequeg quickly become fast friends, looking forward to bed time where they touch knees and noses and tell each other secrets (really). Ishmael even says on more than one occasion that he feels "married" to Queequeg and comforted by waking up with his arms around him. Plus the book's title has "dick" in it, Queequeg's head is tattooed purple, and it's about a group of seamen lustily chasing a white sperm whale...
Anyway, hilarity aside, I found myself enjoying this strange book - while they were in port at least. Even when Ishmael and Queequeg sign up to the Pequod but then they ship out and the book comes to a grinding halt. The edition I read was 625 pages long and the Pequod sets sail somewhere around page 200; for the next 300, maybe more, pages Ishmael (or more accurately Melville) decides to tell the reader everything there is to know about whaling, no matter how obscure or dull or esoteric.
He tells you about the different types of whales and the differences between the whales, from the diameters of their fins, to the way they're cut up once killed, and so on. Then he talks about the instruments used in hunting whales - I can't even begin to describe what these are but my goodness, take my word when I say he is very thorough in describing them. How they were made, what they're made of, what their purpose is, how to clean them, how to store them - this is all explored at length! Did someone say famous whaling cases? He's got these as well. He mentions how big an industry whaling is (and it was in the 1850s, the fifth largest industry in America though once petroleum was discovered to have many more uses, whale oil faded out and by the beginning of the 20th century the whaling boom was finished for good) and the many uses whale oil has.
I've barely scratched the surface of the kind of tedious details any fiction reader doesn't give a damn about but be warned all ye who enter here: there are many hundreds of pages of utterly unnecessary, pointless and skull-crushingly boring details wedged in preventing the reader from enjoying the real story.
The real story being why the book has endured so long, and it really is quite good. From the time they leave port, if Melville had gone straight from that to an incident or two of killing whales, skipping about 300 pages of rubbish, and then onto the final confrontation between the Pequod and Moby-Dick, I'd be singing this book's praises and giving it five stars. As such, don't believe anyone who tells you this is an un-putdownable adventure read. They're lying to you. Nobody who has read the unabridged version would in their right mind think that reading about the role of buckets in the ship's hold or a 5 page description of a whale's blow hole is in any way interesting, not even remotely. Shenanigans, I say!
Having said that, I'm glad I read it. There were moments I genuinely enjoyed reading it from the way Melville describes the whaling town of Nantucket, to the complex and fascinating relationship between Ahab and Starbuck, to the final words of Ahab as he faces his doom in the face of the white whale ("from hell's heart I stab at thee!"). That said, I don't think I would ever read this again, or at least if I did I would skip most of the passages I know are about things unrelated to the story of these characters and of no interest whatsoever.
If you're a student of literature like me, willing to face down the leviathan that is this book, you're going to read this anyway, there's no way a book of this magnitude will get past you without the urge to find out for yourself what it's like and making up your own mind. But for the casual reader, out for a good read, some fun? Stay well away from this book. It will cause frustration and more skim-reading than you'll ever do for any other book.
If only Melville had an editor...