Why I Read Moby Dick
I’m on a pilgrimage in Cape Cod Massachusetts – Falmouth, New Bedford, Nantucket—and I’m reading Moby Dick again. It’s the 5th time. Every couple of years I read it and now I’m trying to articulate why. This time I traveled 3,000 miles across the U.S. to steep myself in the waters and sea air where Moby Dick begins, to immerse myself into the historical context of the whaling industry. Why do I read Moby Dick?
I bought my Penguin classic paperback copy of Moby Dick in 1992, years before I actually read it. I had escaped this great American literature classic and intended to redress the omission. But why 625 pages of Moby Dick, why not something else? Maybe, like Ishmael, I thought I would sail a little and see the watery part of the world. The book cover attracted my eye—the dramatic stoving of a whaleboat by a sperm whale, the painting “Peche du Cachalot” by Garneray, left no doubt what would happen four pages from the end. But how formidable the first 621 pages! The back pages of maps and illustrations gave me courage and they proved to be steady, stalwart companions in this voyage, I turned to them often as I read. In this new watery world of whaling jargon and marine geography, my anchor was the map, my ballast the glossary, and the illustrations of the boat, the tools, the sails my spyglass. I entered it as an escape from whatever quotidian turmoil dogged me at the time, and two weeks later I was done.
It was one of the most astonishing reading experiences of my lifetime. It activated each physical sense and a great deal of imagination. I could smell and taste the difference between clam and cod chowder, see the vertiginous watch from the crow’s nest, feel the salt drying on cold damp trousers, and hear the gulls screaming their hatred. The seemingly unending description of whaling tools, whaling technique, the names of every mast and sail and rope and iron, so frustrating for many readers, but delightful for me—give me more; please, never end.
The first reading was like a successful whaling voyage where my own small lay gave me an unexpected treasure. Moby Dick became and remains my favorite book. I went into it as a greenhorn and came out of it a little less of a greenhorn. With the second and third readings I went deeper and emerged a little wiser. With the fourth and fifth, I shipped out with other experienced mates who added still more to my understanding. The current voyage involves transcribing my favorite passages for their beauty of language and surprise of construction. Passages like these:
“…they made a straight wake for the whale’s mouth—the bar—when the wrinkled little old Jonah, there officiating, soon poured them out brimmers all around.”
“…yet see how elastic our still prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them.”
(About the ship Pequod) “She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.”
“But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.”
Nobody writes like this anymore. I promised I would limit myself to just 200 passages, but it is closer to 300.
Moby Dick is that great book I turn to for escape, solace, beauty and guidance. It is my bible. No matter to me that it was written by a dead, white man (insert ‘hu’ before every ‘man’)—all great literature transcends the restraints of daily prejudices.
There is always more to know, and everyone has their own personal interpretation of what the white whale is. Literary arguments about the themes and meanings of Moby Dick abound, careers are built around this. I may just approach the status of third-mate Flask in my comprehension of Moby Dick. I aspire for Queequeg’s wisdom. The scholars and I—we are all still sharpening our tools, splicing our ropes, waiting for the next sighting of our own whale.
Is Moby Dick the microcosm of American history and striving as many suggest, and as relevant in our day as in Melville’s? Most certainly, but it would be a shame to stop there with this elevator speech about why bother reading Moby Dick now. Look at Matt Kish’s very personal and contemporary vision of what Moby Dick means to him. Look at Jake Hegge’s and Gene Scheer’s. Each of us earns our own personal relationship to the book. Each has our own white whale, haunting us or guiding us to our fate. Each of us is a greenhorn searching for the meaning of our lives.
It’s Chapter 87 coming two-thirds of the way into the book—The Grand Armada, with its delicate juxtaposition of calm and gore—that best sums up why I continue to explore Moby Dick. One of the longer chapters of the book, it describes cycles of pursuit of whales, whalemen and pirates in the south china sea. It has everything I love about this book – arcane vocabulary; long, rambling beautiful sentences; precise descriptions of whaling technique. And it has this:
“…amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.”
The impossibility of finding good amidst evil, beauty alongside unspeakable horror, Melville described a shattering juxtaposition of whales both hunted and hallowed. He could well have written about the deserts of Syria, the streets of Ferguson.
Faith like a jackal roams among Moby Dick’s 625 pages, finding hope in every chapter. Matt Kish found it on every page, Jake Hegge in every note. I’m still reading, and there will be a 6th and a 7th and an 8th interpretation while I etch out my own Moby Dick scratchings. We are all whalers with our slow scrimshaw art—our too tiny human comprehension of our equally small lives set against the vastness of the sea, the sky, the galaxies.