I had known about Moby Dick for a long time, but until last year I never attempted reading it. The reason I picked it up was because an editor friend recommended it to me along with a list of other classic literature. (That list includes Of Human Bondage. Check out my review.) Had it never been recommended to me, I probably never would have attempted reading Moby Dick because it is probably one of the most difficult books to read. Not only is it very long, but the prose is incredibly dense and deep.
Moby Dick begins with one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature: “Call me Ishmael.” He is the story’s narrator throughout the Pequod’s three year voyage on the seas led by the monomaniac Captain Ahab. As a lowly shiphand, he does not often take action but mostly is a passive observer in much the way that a journalist would report a news story. He is on the side lines watching and telling us the story. In many ways, he is the perfect narrator. At times digressive, insightful, and vulgar he takes us inside the whaler’s world.
It is dense, and long, but also transcendent. Moby Dick is one of those books that every aspiring author should read. Herman Melville created a work so timeless that people today can still learn a lot about the craft of writing from it. Every line is like poetry. Take this passage for example explaining how Ahab lost his leg, and why he so fervently hates the whale.
“And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, nor no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice. Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.”
The book is filled with writing like this. But one the frustrating things for many people who try to read Moby Dick is in how Melville focuses on very specific aspects of the whaling industry and describes them to extreme detail and length. Imagine reading an entire chapter about how a harpoon is built. Things like this are, to readers in the 21st century, boring and irrelevant. Underneath all this information lies a great adventure story, but it can be hard to dig through that.
There are many times when his style works very well. For example, there is one entire chapter called ‘The Whiteness of the Whale,” which is over 3000 words and only talks about the colour white with an inexhaustible compendium of metaphors and similes. You can’t help but wonder where he comes up with this stuff.
“This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are?”
All throughout Moby Dick Melville demonstrates an encyclopaedic knowledge of whales and the whaling industry. At times it’s hard to figure out what the hell he’s taking about because of all the technical terminology. Thankfully there are footnotes and endnotes, but you may still find yourself reaching for the dictionary sometimes. He must have worked on a whaling ship at some point in his life because there is no way that he could have had such intricate knowledge of these things. Not only is Moby Dick a novel, but it also doubles as a textbook on the practise of whaling. Entire chapters are devoted to things like the whale’s teeth, or the valuable oil the crew extracts from their bodies.
At its core, Moby Dick is about obsession and self destruction. Ahab’s quest to find the whale sends them all over the world and he will stop at nothing until he drives his spear deep into the whale’s heart. Hence the famous line in the final chapter. “From hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Ahab puts aside the safety of his own crew, and even his own mortality in pursuit of vengeance. In the end, one cannot take revenge on an animal and we see Ahab’s final doom in the futility of it all.
Moby Dick suffers from being one of those books that is studied rather than enjoyed, but there is tremendous value in here for anyone who wants to write their own novels. The enjoyment of this book lies in Melville’s elegant prose, and the beauty contained in each passage. I put it down with a great feeling of achievement, as if I had come home from a long journey. After reading a book like this, you feel like you can read anything.