What I’m Reading: Moby-Dick

Call me Joshua. I’ve finally finished the journey. I started Moby-Dick last fall, read about half in a month, then put it down, intending to pick it up again after the New Year.  In fact, I picked it up again in September and only just now reached the end. I’ve developed a theory during my reading of Moby-Dick that everyone who reads it comes to identify with Captain Ahab, with the reader’s white whale being completing the book itself.

So was it worth it? Was it worth the weeks and months, the dense prose, the bizarre chapter-long digressions on the illustrations of whales in books or the comparisons of whales and dolphins, the obscure references requiring pages of explanatory notes, the whole trip from the north Atlantic to the Indian Ocean to the East Asian coast and then the final fateful encounter in the south Pacific?

Oh, God yes, it was worth it. For one thing, the prose is so beautiful, so biblical and epic. Here’s one of my favorite passages, concerning a ship-boy, Pip, who’s fallen overboard in the middle of a whale hunt and goes mad during his hours-long sojourn alone on the sea, before the ship comes by to pick him up:

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.

That’s writing right there. If you don’t shiver when you reach the part about “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom” I’m not sure you’re fit to read the English language.

The story’s well-known enough, and the characters too, I think: obsessed Ahab, good-hearted and conscientious Starbuck, cheerfully cynical Stubb, brave and spiritually attuned Queequeg, and many, many others. What’s less well-known is that reading this book is an education in itself, and for that I dub it one of my coveted Shortcuts to Smartness books. You see, not only do you get the famous story, you get everything you ever wanted to know about whales and whaling (and I mean everything), but also hundreds of details about geography, sailing, history, New England life in the 1850s, religion, the culture of South Pacific islanders, and on and on.

So do I recommend this to others? Oh, that’s a tough one. I don’t think any lover of literature should die without reading this, let’s put it that way. As for whether you should read it now, that depends on how much time you have to devote to it, because this is one book that does not reward distraction. But if you’re willing to make the commitment, Moby-Dick is truly one of the best books you’ll ever read.

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