Friday 9 August 2019

Moby-Dick - Check in Post #1

I've been so absorbed and fascinated by these early stages in our #MobyDickReadlong that this first post has come along much faster than I initially thought. I may, or may not, continue this level of enthusiasm as we go along!

Below are my notes and research, favourite quotes and points of interest...with a few challenges (in  bold) for you to join in.

Etymology & Extracts:
  • the work of a consumptive "He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality."
  • GAWURA - whale in Dharug & Dharawal language - my Aussie contribution to the list. 
    • What is the indigenous word for whale in your local area?
  • the sub-sub-librarian "random allusions to whales".
  • "Prior to the whaling era, Nyungar people, including the Mineng, had traditionally consumed whale meat only on an opportunistic basis when animals stranded on the beach or carcasses washed ashore. When this vast bounty of meat became available, it acted as a trigger mechanism for nearby groups to gather and feast. Meat was roasted or eaten raw and the people rubbed blubber on to their bodies. There was a festive air to the week-long gatherings." (Nebinyan's songs) My Aussie contribution to the extracts. 
    • What's your favourite whale extract, quote, poem that wasn't included in Melville's list?
Jibbon Aboriginal rock engravings in Royal National Park, south of Botany Bay. Photo: David Finnegan

Chapter 1: Loomings
  • I was challenged by Nancy to find the symbolism behind the names chosen by Melville. 
    • "Call me Ishmael" - A biblical name meaning ‘God has harkened’. 
    • A name that symbolises orphans, exiles, outcasts & wanderers. 
    • Refers to Genesis 16:11 ‘Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael.
  • description of depression - "whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul".
  • humour - "Pythagorean maxim" - a reference to Pythagoras' dislike of beans because of their relationship to flatulence. 
    • A fart joke in the first chapter. Nice one Herman!
  • philosophy - 
    • "the ungraspable phantom of life"  
    • "there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid".
  • rhyming - "I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts." 
    • I only noticed the lovely rhythm between these 2 sentences when I listened to the Whale, Whale, Whale podcast on Wednesday.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag
  • Compounds and alliteration - "the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it."

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn
  • Fanda found a version of the painting that Melville spent almost two pages in describing! 
    • "in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads."
Aaron Zlatkin, The Spouter-Inn–Revealed, oil on canvas, 1996

  • word play - "a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture".
  • "skrimshander" (see image below)
  • Bartender called Jonah!
  • Bulkington - 
    • "this man interested me at once; and since the sea-gods had ordained that he should soon become my shipmate (though but a sleeping-partner one, so far as this narrative is concerned)." 
    • A tall man with "noble shoulders and a chest like a coffer-dam", "fine stature" - bulky in fact?! 
    • And mysterious - "slipped away unobserved", "I saw no more of him till he became my comrade on the sea."
  • Queequeg symbolism - 
    • name is devoid of any meaning. 
    • He's a symbol of all mankind, exotic and foreign, pagan with Islamic beliefs, democratic, equality, bringer of knowledge, source of enlightenment, resourceful and loyal, based on Te Pehi Kupe.
  • "Ignorance is the parent of fear."
  • "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."

Chapter 4: The Counterpane
  • Homo-eroticism - "I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife."
  • lots of references in this chapter to 'civility', 'savages', 'propriety', 'indecorous', 'breeding' 
    • Who is civilised and respectful and who is not?

Chapter 5: Breakfast
  • philosophy - "a good laugh is a mighty good thing".
  • Queequeg not only shaves with his harpoon, he eats with it as well!

Chapter 6: The Street
  • "any considerable seaport will frequently offer to view the queerest looking nondescripts from foreign parts."
  • "harpooners, cannibals and bumpkins".
  • "and the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses".

Chapter 7: The Chapel
  • foreshadowing - "by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine."
Seaman's Bethel, New Bedford, 1968
On Podcasts:
  • I have now listened to the first six chapters of the Moby-Dick Big Read. I really wanted to like this format. I liked the idea of having famous people and regular people read a chapter each, but as Fanda has already mentioned, the quality of the reading and the production is uneven. It feels redundant to read and listen to exactly the same thing. So I am abandoning the Big Read for now, but will keep it in reserve for some of those detailed whaling chapters I keep hearing about, where I may like to read and listen at the same time.
  • However, it is worthwhile to visit the webpage for each chapter just to see the 136 amazing artworks collected there. Below is the example from Chapter 1.
  • They also remind us that "The slaughter of whales continues. Every year, over 2,000 whales are killed for profit." They provide a place to donate to help stop whaling if you wish.
Albus, 2009 by Marcus Harvey
Courtesy of White Cube
  • The podcast I will continue with though is Whale, Whale, Whale. It is an annotated reading of each chapter. Kevin invites friends in to discuss each chapter with him, so that the reading is interspersed with questions, answers, observations and modern takes on the old language. On a car trip on Wednesday, I had the chance to catch up on the first seven chapters. So far they have gone into all the notes covered in the Power Moby Dick site plus with humorous asides. They have managed to compare Ishmael to the TV character Frasier and the Spouter-Inn to the bar in Cheers. They have also discussed that loving or hating Moby-Dick is a choice, 'the slog is real, but it is the thing that makes it.' Right now, I couldn't agree more. The only downside is that Kevin has only got to chapter 32 and seems to have run aground back in February. I will be getting on twitter to encourage him to set sail once again.

Adaptations: I'm starting a list of book adaptations of Moby-Dick. Please let me know if you come across anymore.
  • And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness, 
  • Railsea by China Mieville, 
  • Ray Bradbury' Leviathan '99
  • The Whites by Richard Price 
  • Geronimo Stilton Classic Tales graphic younger reader version 
  • Kit de Waal's Becoming Dinah

Articles: Thanks to the 200th anniversary of Melville's birth on the 1st, a number of articles blossomed online. A selection is included below.
  • Subversive, queer and terrifyingly relevant: six reasons why Moby-Dick is the novel for our times by Philip Hoare 30/7/2019
    • He calls Moby-Dick 'the Mount Everest of literature: huge and apparently insurmountable, its snowy peak as elusive as the tail of the great white whale himself.'
    • 'Not only is it very funny and very subversive, but it maps out the modern world as if Melville had lived his life in the future and was only waiting for us to catch up.'
    • He compares Ahab's chase of the white whale to George W. Bush's hunt for Osama Bin Laden and Trump's obsession with building a wall.
    • He says that Moby-Dick 'is a metaphor for a new republic already falling apart, with the pursuit of the white whale as a bitter analogy for the slave-owning states.'
  • How Herman Melville's 'Moby-Dick' anticipated modernist writing by Jochen Kürten 31/7/2019
    • Kürten says that only 3000 copies of Moby-Dick were sold during Melville's lifetime. He was not rediscovered until the 1920's.
    • He 'broke away from traditional story telling methods of the day' utilising 'different interpretive possibilities'.
    • He claims that Melville 'anticipated Franz Kafka's prose & the existential currents in philosophy.'
  • The Encyclopedic Genius of Melville’s Masterpiece: On Moby Dick as a Way of Seeing the World by Suzanne Conklin Akbari 1/8/2019
    • She claims that she is haunted by sections of the book - including the Extracts - where she sees 'order just beneath the surface'. Melville's 'encyclopaedism promises that there is a system of order.'
    • Melville's lens is the whale. She calls him an 'architect not builder'.
    • Compares Melville's lists to Bartholomaeus Anglicus - De Proprietatibus rerum (On the Property of Things).
    • 'As readers, we inhabit a peculiar place in time, both anchored in our time and also adrift within the time of the book'.
    • Suzanne has her own literature based podcast called The Spouter-Inn.
  • Herman Melville is 200, but 'Moby-Dick' is very 2019 by David Shaerf 1/8/2019
    • Shaerf focuses on the universality of Moby-Dick - 'Melville wasn't simply writing about whales, he was writing about the human condition (and whales).'
    • 'Melville covers topics such as race and religion, gender and sexuality, environmentalism and politics in ways that seem much more aligned with contemporary sensibilities than the more puritanical mindset that prevailed during Melville's lifetime.'
    • Melville was aware of the social norms he was questioning 'I have written a wicked book'.
    • Shaerf has also produced a film Call Us Ishmael -

How is your Moby-Dick journey going so far?

I'm thrilled to have so many of you reading along with me and joining in on twitter and instagram. My challenge this week is to take a photo of your edition of the book in the wild - preferably near a body of water, since "meditation and water are wedded for ever"! Share on your favourite social media site.
Remember to pop your blog links for #MobyDickReadalong posts here.


  1. Loved reading this. Still remember from my first read of half the book. Still considering joining, even if later.

    1. We'd love to have you along Silvia, at any time you can join in :-)

    2. Brona, first my apologies. At one of your Moby Dick reading along blog's, Bellezza, I misspelled your name, I wrote Bronna. I'm sorry.

      Second. I'M GOING TO JOIN. I may still be behind you and others, but that's cool, ha ha ha, this way I'd get to read your posts, which make the whole thing much more enjoyable than it already is.

    3. Wahoo! That’s great news Silvia - your previous experience with the first half of the book will help those of us new to the book a lot, when things start to get tricky!
      Call me Bronna, Brona or Bron! I answer to all of them 😊🐳

  2. Glad you're enjoying and really getting into the read along. I particularly like your link to Nebinyan's Songs. This is of course Kim Scott home territory - That Dead Man Dance is set in Mineng country and Benang further east along the south coast in Wirlomin country - both of them subgroups of the Noongar nation - and both books have references to whalers, and in fact Kim Scott is descended from the marriage of a whaler and a Wirlomin woman.
    I also checked Daisy Bates' The Passing of the Aborigines. She has a chapter on her two years 'down south' but doesn't write about Nebinyan during her time at Katanning.

    1. Thanks for the information about Kim Scott's heritage, that's really interesting in light of the paper I linked to above. It's such a pity that Bates didn't record Nebinyan's whale song, although I found her description of it quite moving still,

      "In the recitative which dealt with Nebinyan’s whaling experiences, the whole
      gamut of native feeling appeared to be expressed: the sorrow of Nebin, as he saw
      his fire (home) recede further and further away; the stealthy gliding over the
      water towards the resting whale, the sharp look out, the growing excitement as
      the huge fish was approached; the great seas that threatened to swamp the whale
      boat; the swift and sure harpooning; the final surrender of the whale; the triumphant towing back to ship or beach, and the great rejoicing over the whale feast —
      each of these formed a song in itself, and the actions peculiar to each stage were
      faithfully rendered."

  3. Wow, Brona, great resources! I'll have to go back and visit your links.

    Unfortunately, I'm in the middle the desert...and summer is practically over, so I can't even be near a pool. Guess I'll have to be creative.

    BTW, since you mentioned it...there is a lot of foreshadowing in MD; so having read this before, I am having fun picking up the foreshadowing moments.

    1. I’m only 7 chapters in & I can already see the benefits of retracing this particular book. Listening to the podcast after I read the chapter also has a similar benefit - I hear the language & feel the rhythm of the words in a way you don’t experience just by reading quietly to oneself.

    2. Ruth, I think it would be kind of funny to find Moby Dick in places you would not think of as 'water appropriate.' But that's just my sense of humor :)

    3. I'm looking forward to some of those photos Laurie :-D

  4. I am still enthused and I hope it doesn't wane. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with readalongs when I feel I am getting behind, but the way you have the reading schedule set up even missing a week would be ok, because the chapters are short and the schedule is long!

    Maybe because I like Henry James, I am digging hard on Melville's detailed writing style. Where James goes into people's heads, Melville goes into the externals. And since I am a visual reader I can see, hear and smell everything, which equals love lol I am beginning to question why I put this novel on my Great Fear Reads book list?

    I had fun on vacation last week with your #MobyDickInTheWild body of water challenge. :)

    1. I'm like you right now Laurie, wondering what on earth all the fuss is about it being tricky and hard.

      But then I remember I did try and read it a while ago and couldn't even get myself through the first chapter. I obviously wasn't in the mood for long sentences and long details at that time. I think my prep and the excitement of this readalong have helped a lot too. I saw bring on the whaling anatomy chapter!!


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.