on 3 March 2014
I finished this book a week ago and it has stayed in my mind ever since. What an excellent, philosophical book.
Please ignore all the reviews saying it meanders and spends too much time on cetology. Remember when this was written and how little we knew about whales.
There is so much more to this book than a man after a whale. Religion, life, death and the mind of man are all explored. There is so much good humour also but you may have to re read passages to get it as the language is of its time.
If the sea is in you and you love to learn about how people survived on a boat for 4 years without ever touching land, then dig in.
I am jealous of you if its the first time you are going to read it.
Melville's sixth novel, "Moby-Dick" received mixed reviews when published in 1851 and was nearly forgotten after the author's death in 1891. In the early 1920's, the book was rediscovered and quickly achieved the stature of an American classic. The book is inexhaustible. I have recently returned to it. In his 2005 study, "Melville", Andrew Delbanco discusses some of the ways "Moby-Dick" has been read over the years. Delbanco writes:
"Moby-Dick was not a book for a particular moment. It is a book for the ages. What gives it its psychological and moral power is that, freakish as he is, Ahab seems more part of us than apart from us. Like all great literary representations of evil, he is attractive as well as repulsive. And so Melville emerged in the twentieth century as the American Dostoevsky -- a writer who, with terrible clairvoyance, had been waiting for the world to catch up with him."
"Moby-Dick" is long, difficult, and digressive. It is not a straighforward narrative. Melville pauses many times for extended chapters to explore matters seemingly tangential to the intense story he has to tell. The book is written in a baroque, large, blustery and exhuberant prose that is worlds away from the tightness and concision favored by many 20th Century American writers. Melville also knows how to build tension. The work unfolds story and by indirection. A rather lengthy opening section of the book takes place on land in New York City, New Bedford, and Nantucket. Captain Ahab's monomaical character is revealed slowly through hints, offered by a shadowy character with the Biblical name of Elijah and by visions and foreshadowing. A sermon on the Book of Jonah by Father Mapple frames the book and it is quickly contrasted with Queequeg and his attitude towards his gods. When Ahab and many of the main characters appear, the book is already well underway.
The book is narrated in the first person by Ishmael -- a Biblical outcast -- with his famous opening line, "Call me Ishmael". As the story proceeds, however, Melville seeminly disregards the limits of first-person narration as the story describes closely scenes and events well beyond Ishmael's ability to know.
Ishmael denies that the story of Ahab and the great whale is an allegory, and his denial deserves to be thought about and taken seriously. Many readers have found meanings of all sorts in "Moby-Dick", ranging from the personal, through the religious, through the political. Melville was himself a seeker and largely an autodidact with the deepest doubts about religious faith combined with a need to believe. Understanding evil and suffering is at the heart of "Moby-Dick". Ahab fanatically and selfishly pursues the whale and destorys himself and his crew. Ishmael, in signing on to the Pequod and undertaking a voyage hazardous in the best of circumstances is also a seeker in the story. Through luck, prudence, and sense, Ishmael is a survivor.
The story moves between Ahab's quest for the whale and a welter of factual material on the biology of whales, the history of whaling, the techniques of the whale fishery and immeasurably more. These long sections, which puzzle many readers, seem to me integral to the work. Mellville wants the reader to see the difference between a symbol and an icon, taken for good or ill, and the vast being of the natural world. Ahab expands the whale to something metaphysical in his ravings. Melville understands this, and he also understands that the whale is simply a magnificent animal. The various factual chapters move in different ways. Most of them develop a theme at some length before offering philosophical or spiritual questions about the matter under discussion. The broad themes of the book seldom are absent from view.
During the course of the voyage, the Pequod encounters other whalers, some of which seek Ahab's help while others bring messages of the joys of life. Ahab dispenses with what are the overtures of common, shared life with his abrupt opening query to each of them: "Hast Seen the White Whale"? Readers can identify with Ahab to a greater or lesser degree as they try to understand the passions which tend to rule their own lives. There are many extraordinary scenes in this book, not the least of which is the climactic fight between Ahab and the whale at the end.
Amazon's reader reviews allow for many different perspectives on Melville's book from readers with different degrees of familiarity with the text. "Moby-Dick" invites many different readings in searching for the sources of one's demons and for the common life. I have tried to offer some of my own reactions from my recent reading of "Moby-Dick."
on 22 April 2013
I still have a lovely though tattered hardback of this book with the marvellous Rockwell Kent Art Deco illustrations; but I was pleased recently to find that it was available (free!!!) on Kindle, so I now have that too.
Nearly everyone will know the story, either through movies of the book, or the very many stories, comics, films, etc., inspired by it - because it's simply one of the archetypal tales of all time. If you haven't read it yet, though, I'd recommend it; but only if you have the patience to gently absorb what is a sizeable, somewhat rambling book, covering a world of different subjects all wound into the central story. If you do, you'll find it a contemplative delight, beautifully written, interesting in so many ways; and with a strong, stark tale to tell that you'll never forget.
is the very first sentence in this book and these few words always come to mind when anyone mentions this book.
The story is about a White Whale, a Whaling Ship called the Pequod and its Captain, Ahab. Ahab is convinced that the great white whale is the devil incarnate and it is this which drives him on to seek his nemesis and to attempt to kill it.
The merchantmen aboard the Pequod are only paid in the amount of whale oil that is recovered and then taken to shore for processing so when Ahab hears that the whale is going in another direction he orders that the Pequod will follow the whale until he has himself killed it. The men lose many chances to make money because of his obsession and some indeed begin to think that Ahab is mad..............he probably is quite mad by now but religious fervour drives him on until at last he is in sight of the whale which by now is scarred, stuck with old harpoons and rope and seems to Ahab to have an intelligence towards him. Disaster strikes...........anymore would be a huge spoiler to this now classic book.
It goes to show how one mans obsession can lead others to their doom.
I'd recommend this very highly.
on 14 January 2015
I wish I could say that my reading tastes have just changed over the years, but I recall when they tried to force feed me this book in high school, and it just didn’t go down any better. If you pull out the story thread and put a movie to it, you’ve got the makings of a great drama, no argument there. But following along with this paid-by-the-word approach the author takes, it’s just too much. Huge sections of the book are survivable only by skimming, such as the wretched amount of detail dedicated to the whaling process. Other portions are worthy of a closer look. If you’re studying this book as much for what to do as what not to do when writing a modern day classic of your own, I’d say wade on in. Otherwise, stick to the Gregory Peck film, which holds up rather well.
on 28 June 2015
I'm glad I read it from the perspective of being able to discuss it as one of the classics but it's a very difficult book to read from at least two points of view. Firstly, if you're an animal lover you'll find the detailed, highly gory, descriptions of the slaughter of whales, of which there are many accounts, unpalatable (to say the least). Secondly, there are very long and tedious accounts of whale study that will bore you to tears unless you're the most pedantic whale fanatic alive. This book apparently describes every species of whale known to man in the most horribly exacting manner, right down to such minutiae as what is found inside the sperm whales skull, what this smells like, and how it feels to squeeze it in your fingers. Only after you've ploughed relentlessly through all this do you finally get to the 'exciting' (if you can stomach hunting) pursuit of the eponymous white whale. This part of the book is in the style of your typical adventure yarn, entertaining and fast-paced. There are some fabulous moments that have been referenced in popular culture such as Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. The mighty antagonist, Moby Dick, is truly a beast of mythic qualities, enormous, ancient, intelligent. This gives Captain Ahab's obsessive pursuit a metaphorical dimension that contributes to its status as a classic. Certainly the detailed accounts not only of whales but of whaling are also integral to this as a significant work to history and natural history. The first third of the book is surprisingly comical which, perhaps, serves as a nice counter to the darker realities of the harsh and dangerous life of the whaler.
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...
on 12 November 2013
If only the writer shared the focus Moby Dick's most famout character; Captain Ahab. My most vivid memory of Moby Dick is seeing Sir Patrick Stewart absolutely nail the role of Captain Ahab, so I was really looking forward to reading the source material.
However, I was disappointed. It often strays into encyclopedic descriptions of things (mainly whales). So I often found myself losing track of the main narrative. This made it difficult to engage (Patrick Stewart pun intended) and when that happens with literature, it's pretty much game over for me.
If I were to re-print this, I would have the encyclopedic descriptions as Appendices. So they don't derail the story and people can look them up if they choose.
on 16 December 2014
I tried, I really did. I got to chapter 12 and they were only just getting on the bloody boat. You need the patience of a saint to stick with this and read it properly. For example, one passage relaying a church sermon went on for about 10 pages - basically meaning you were taken through the whole sermon in real time. I gave up quarter way through and read the synopsis on Wikipedia instead. Turns out it's a good story...
On the plus side, what I did read was very different from the norm, with hyper-detailed descriptions of everything and a dark, moody air about it. Given it can be downloaded for free it's worth a go, but I doubt I am the first person to fail getting to the end.
on 11 September 2014
Review courtesy of www.subtleillumination.com
In 1842, a young man would abandon the whaling ship he was working on to live among reputed cannibals and pursue love affairs with local girls. He would recount these events in bestselling books when he returned home, before destroying his career with a book that received almost universally scathing reviews: Moby-Dick, now listed among the Great American Novels, even called the best book ever written.
At its best, Moby-Dick is excellent: it’s moving, it’s insightful, and it very much captures the sense of the sacred, the spiritual relationship of crew to whale or man to obsession. It can also be fascinating in its detail: entire chapters are devoted to the anatomy of the whale, the symbolism of the colour white, or the role of the whale in art and history. Phrases like “Call me Ishmael” are some of the best known of any book, even among people who haven’t read the original source: it is but one of many unforgettable phrases. Though broadly pro-whaling, it also even has some sympathy with the whales, confronting the fact that the activity necessarily involves tormenting the animals.
For all that, let me confess I found it a little boring, philistine as that may make me. I’m not one to quail at historical detail given my passion for history, and those parts I enjoyed, but particularly the first half I found slow, long descriptive sections filling space between more interesting parts. The book has some great sections and some great lines, but I wouldn’t have minded were it considerably shorter. Still, as a reflection on the personality of man and the necessities of the energy industry, it has much to tell us today: the oil we burn, though not literally in lamps and candles, can still cost blood.