I first tried reading ‘Moby Dick’ as an undergraduate student. The iconic opening sentence, ‘Call me Ishmael’, worked its magic, but things swiftly went downhill. I may have been feeling particularly touchy that day; it must be confessed that I took the rest of the first paragraph very personally indeed:
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. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.’
Fine Ishmael, I thought. I don’t like you either. Then I went back to reading ‘Clarissa‘.
Fortunately ‘Moby Dick’ was then (misguidedly) chosen for my book club. It defeated many in the group, but I was hooked; I’d made my peace with Ishmael and have loved the novel ever since. I think one of the main issues with trying to sell such a massive book is that it has been weirdly mis-represented through the years as an adventure quest narrative. This is a bit like saying ‘Othello’ is about cloth, because of the significant handkerchief and pillow. There may be a quest at the end of ‘Moby Dick’, but the book really does contain so much more.
I really enjoyed (finally) reading Moby Dick and I fully intend to re-read it again in the future. As an aide memoir for myself, and in the hope of sharing the love, below are my dos and don’ts for a successful passage through this epic tome.
Do: prepare yourself for lots of whale love. As I wrote above, this is not a book about a man searching for a giant mammal, it’s about why whales are the most fascinating creatures ever. There are chapters about the biological classification of whales, about traditional pictures of whales and about the whale population. These are narrated with a single minded passion for the subject that I find utterly compelling but…
Don’t: expect anything in the way of story to get going for ages and ages because the narrator is just far more interested in whales than he is in page-turning action adventure.
Do: get caught up in the homoeroticism. It’s a sperm whale after all, and the joy of men getting covered in sperm together is writ large. If you can, I’d really recommend trying to get a copy of the book with an anti-homoerotic essay as an introduction, because there’s nothing funnier that reading an academic trying to argue the book is unequivocally straight and thus having to justify lines like: ‘Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.’ Then there’s the bit where they prepare the oil: ‘Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.‘
Don’t: expect the narrator to be the main character. Maybe I’d have done better on my first attempt if this had been explained to me. Ishmael writes a lot, but the book is not about him. It’s about whales.
Do: enjoy the genre-bending. This book is not really a novel any more than it’s a philosophical treatise or a long idiosyncratic encyclopaedia entry about whales.
Don’t: assume you’ll be able to remember the story if you put the book down. This is largely because there isn’t really much of a story for large sections of the book. On a similar note, don’t worry if you put it down and don’t pick it up again for ages. The lack of plot mean that it can be hypnotic reading, but only during the moment. Melville wrote it over at least two years, so there’s every reason to follow his example and take the reading slowly. You’ll be won over by the whales eventually.
Do: consider an audio version. This post was inspired by London’s Southbank Centre doing an unabridged reading of Moby Dick over the next four days. It strikes me as such a perfect way to get to know this masterpiece. Also, if you wander off or fall asleep at any point, you’re pretty much guaranteed to wake up in the same place; they still won’t have caught the beast and Ishmael will still be rhapsodising about whales.
It may have taken me a while to get into Moby Dick, but now I love it. I’m also really intrigued by the idea of an unabridged public reading. I’ll certainly be stopping by at some point to get a feel for it and to see if my next Moby Dick read will double as my first real foray into the world of audio books. As far as I’m concerned, anything that gets more people considering reading big books has got to be a good thing.