Wednesday 3 July 2019

Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick's little book of essays about why one should read Moby-Dick is more a book about one man's love for this American classic and it's author than anything else. By sharing his passion and knowledge, Philbrick is hoping to inspire others to follow his example and dive right into this complex, challenging book feet first.

Or perhaps I should say, heart first.

For Why Read Moby-Dick is a love story.

Philbrick provides lots of fascinating background information about how Melville wrote the book, his life story, plus influential friendships, writing style, themes and the various draft versions. He also gives detailed insights into the various characters and their motivations as well as exploring the idea that,

Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts & ideals...whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important.

I confess this over-the-top ra-ra American classic stuff nearly put me off. Especially when he went on to say, "instead of writing history, Melville is forging an American mythology." Please!
But I might be letting my current feelings about US politics get in the way of a good story, and perhaps now is exactly the type of 'crisis' that Philbrick is referring to. Which leaves me to wonder what a 2019 read of Moby-Dick might say to me, from the other side of the world, about America today?

Will this particular thought resonate even more as I read along?

To be in the presence of a great leader is to know a blighted soul who has managed to make the darkness work for him....Melville shows us how susceptible we ordinary people are to the seductive power of a great & demented man.

Philbrick is pretty clear about what he thinks Moby-Dick says, 

The the mythical incarnation of America: a country blessed by God & by free enterprise that nonetheless embraces the barbarity it supposedly supplanted.

...but wait there's more!

Moby-Dick is a true epic, embodying almost every powerful American archetype as it interweaves creation myths, revenge narratives, folktales & the conflicting impulses to create & to destroy.

If that didn't make you feel too squeamish, then read on brave wayfarer!

The rest of this post, however, will have some spoilerish moments and quotes.
Continue at your own peril!

I have not read Moby-Dick or ever seen any movie versions. But I still know quite a lot about the story and what happens. Philbrick is careful not to reveal everything (I'm assuming) but lots of the well-known details and events are referred to in his book (and below) where I will highlight some of the main points, so that I have them to hand for my August #MobyDickReadalong.

Early on he tackles one of the big problems most people have with the book,

Moby-Dick may be a well known (American classic), is the most reluctantly read. It is too long and maddeningly digressive...but the novel, like all great works of art, grows on you.

Like Nancy @NancyElin, Philbrick doesn't discourage the reader from skimming over the tedious sections,

Moby-Dick is a long book & time is short...The important thing is to spend some time with the novel, to listen as you read, to feel the prose adapt to the various voices...

This point about listening interested me a lot, as I plan to listen to the Moby Dick Big Read at the same time as I read the book. It's beginning to sound like a very good way to tackle this tricky book.
Later on, Philbrick also suggests reading aloud certain sections to enjoy the poetry and rhythm of Melville's language.

I reread the words aloud, feeling the rhythms, the shrewdly hidden rhymes and the miraculous way he manages consonants and vowels.

I was fascinated to learn that Melville's first draft of Moby-Dick did not have a character called Ahab.

Under the steadying influence of Hawthorne, Melville pauses in the middle of a quite ordinary, picaresque novel about whaling & completely rethought the story in terms of power of darkness he recognised in Hawthorne’s short stories.

Ahab was something he clearly got from Hawthorne: a way to put artistic distance between himself & the very thing he most identified with, this provided a way to write about the darkest & most frightening aspects of human experience.

Obviously Hawthorne was a big influence on Melville and his writing process. Philbrick claims that this friendship is 'reason enough to read Moby-Dick, a novel that is as much about the microclimates of intimate relations as it is about the great, uncontrollable games that push & pull all of us.'

Apparently there are a few famous homo-erotic passages in Moby-Dick that have caused people to wonder about the exact nature of the friendship between Melville and Hawthorne and the unhappiness endemic in Melville's marriage.

Melville & Hawthorne by Edward Sorel

Other books and authors also influenced Melville. Philbrick suggests that 'the writing process for Melville was as much about responding to & incorporating the works of others as it is about relying on his own experiences.'

This included Shakespeare, who Melville only read for the first time as an adult.

Reading Moby-Dick, we are in the presence of a writer who spent several impressionable years on a whaleship, internalised everything he saw, and seven or so years later, after internalising Shakespeare, Hawthorne, the Bible and much more, found the voice and the method that enabled him to broadcast his youthful experiences into the future.

Clearly life experience also played a part in this story. Melville actually spent quite a bit of time on a whaling ship and knew the horrors and joys of being at sea for a long period of time.

The crew of a typical whale ship was made up of men from all over the world....This demographic diversity was not typical of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century....Melville was one of the few authors of his time to have firsthand experience...& his portrayal of working people is never stereotypical or condescending.

The every man, or working class man, sensibility adds authenticity to a story that plays around with some big philosophical ideas.

It is only amid the terrifying vastness of the sea that man can confront the ultimate truths of his existence.

The compartmentalisation of spiritual & worldly concerns is a temptation in every era. In Melville’s day, it was most apparent with the issue of slavery.

Simply feeling good about life doesn’t mean life is good.

As Starbuck discovers, simply being a good guy with a positive worldview is not enough to stop a force of nature like Ahab, who feeds on the fears & hatreds in us all.

The curse of being human is to realise that it all ends & can do so at any moment.
This is Melville's ultimate view of humanity....The job of government, of civilisation, is to keep the shark at bay. All of us are, to a certain degree, capable of wrongdoing. Without some form of government, evil will prevail.

One of the interesting points, not only for Melville and Philbrick, but for myself, was the real life tale that inspired the story in the first. Melville spoke to survivors of the original disaster and read first hand accounts of it. Philbrick has written a book about it too, In The Heart of the Sea (a copy of which resides on my TBR pile). I'm not sure if I will read it before or after my Moby Dick readalong.

There is a pathos, even a tenderness, that enters Moby-Dick in its final chapters, and it was Melville's memory of the real men behind the Essex, Nantucketers who never completely escaped the shadow of the disaster, that brought a much-needed injection of humanity to his attempts to bring his dangerously digressive, sometimes bombastic novel to a close.

Philbrick is also keen for us to read Melville's letters (to Hawthorne in particular) to gain a true and proper understanding of Melville's processes and thinking at the time.

I would go so far as to insist that reading Moby-Dick is not enough. You must read the letters to appreciate the personal and artistic forces that made the book possible.

I'm not sure I will tackle the letters as well - spending seven months with this book is enough I feel! Although if you know of any online articles or websites where I could sample a few of them, please let me know.

Philbrick finishes his book of encouragment with some final words on how to get through certain infamous sections...

The beginning of the book is a magnificent mess...a listing of obscure quotations & translations...seemingly endless compilations of whale-related passages...Melville is challenging the reader with both his scholarship & wit.

Challenge accepted Herman!

Each non sequitur of a chapter requiring its own course correction as the narrative follows the erratic whims of Melville’s imagination toward the Pacific.

Aye, aye captain!

In the end, even the fiercest of tyrants is done in, not by his own sad, used-up self, but by his enablers, the so-called professionals, who keep whispering in his ear.

It's curious how apt and up-to-date Philbrick's 2011 analysis and assessment feels at times. But he leaves us with some hope as well,

Life isn't about achieving your dreams; it's about finding a way to continue in spite of them.

Finally, yes finally! We come to end of this post and Philbrick's musings about the great white whale and the man who created him. Philbrick, at the end, is pretty clear about why he has chosen to read and read Moby-Dick multiple times.

This redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life, is why I read Moby-Dick.

I wonder what I will say next February?
Will I also come to love this behemoth of a book?

7/20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 18℃
Dublin 18℃


  1. Hahaha

    I read half and loved it. I should have had a friend to encourage me to finish it. I need to read it. It really is a beautiful classic... And yet, there's so many beautiful long and worthy classics, aaaahhhhhh.

    1. You could always finish it with us from Aug-Feb :-)

  2. I read Moby DIck a few years ago, and I just loved it. I am not sure I would be interested in the book on why I SHOULD read it, though. I especially liked his descriptions of the wild places at the ends of the world!

    best... mae at

    1. That's 2 out of 2 with encouraging reports of the book so far - we're off to a good start!

  3. I prefer to read a book as it is. Sometimes thinking too wide doesn't help to just enjoying it. I believe that when you read a book, it will tell you something. Maybe it's different than what it will tell me, but it is what it is. That's the joy of reading, in my opinion.

    Can't wait to meet Moby Dick again, by the way! :)

    1. That's how I usually read too Fanda, but a number of years ago I tried to read Moby-Dick and couldn't even get through the first chapter!

      I'm going to need all the help and effort I can to get through it I feel :-)

      It's the approach I've had to take with Iris Murdoch as well - if not for Liz and the others reading along and the research I do for each book, I'm not sure I would have got through them with any degree of satisfaction or enjoyment.

  4. I am looking forward to joining the read-along. At the same time I dread it. Hopefully, I will discover it is not that bad. This was an inspiring post, so I will embrace it with gusto!

  5. I've read In the Heart of the Sea and really enjoyed the narrative, even if some of the details were heart-rending. I'd say read it after Moby-Dick rather than before, as it may be why I've delayed so long reading the novel.

    But this present polemic sounds a great companion piece to this whale of a tale! I'm very strongly considering whether to tackle Melville's novel in August even though I already have my hands full... Ho hum!


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