“Call Me Ishmael”

 

I love to read. Always have. I’ve probably read hundreds of books. Starting with our family’s World Book encyclopedias and aging Tom Swift melodramas through a forest of sci-fi and non-fiction. Plus, whenever I drive, I love to listen to books. I’ve used Audible to listen to the latest offerings and LibriVox for older in-the-public-domain works.

Recently turning 58, I started to think it was high time I tackled some of the classics that I’ve shunned my entire life. Why have I shunned these tomes? I’m ashamed to say they looked too heavy, in literary depth as well as weight. But, chastising myself for being such a lazy lout, I’ve started to take on these “serious” titles. For instance, I’m a few pages into the infamous War and Peace after having read a scholarly volume about the Napoleonic wars from a Russian viewpoint.

But, getting back to the title of my post, I’ve just completed listening to Melville’s Moby Dick, or the Whale as read by a wonderful reciter by the name of Stewart Wills. If it had not been for the precise and melodious elocution of Mr. Wills, I don’t think I could have gotten through those 135 chapters and epilogue.

I’m no literary scholar and I won’t attempt to parse Melville very deeply other than to say that he must have been an interminable bore at parties. I mean, whole chapters dedicated to whales as captured in art through history? Another on every aspect of the word “white?” It goes on and on. Yet, I was riveted by every word. And it came to me, by the end, that this book has nothing and everything to do with 19th-century whaling.

How could it be both? I don’t know, but Melville must have been a genius. I now feel as though I have enough whaling knowledge to match any salty Nantucketer. But also, never, in any horror movie, have I been closer to simultaneously understanding and abhorring a man’s descent into insanity. My previous popular-but-vague perception of Ahab had been that he was an evil tyrannical ship’s captain bent on destroying himself and his crew. But I knew nothing. Melville’s depiction of a man’s mind being torn in two left me unexpectedly moved. I was motivated to pity him, to loathe him, to empathize with him.

How do I sum this ramble up? First, I whole heartedly recommend this LibriVox recording. Thank you Mr. Wills. Secondly, Melville, you magnificent [expletive], I read your book (or at least listened to it.) Third, maybe I’ll have given someone else the courage to take on a long-avoided work of literature.

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  1. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    You’re a better man than I am, Penfold.  I’ve both read and listened to Moby Dick, and I think it sucked both times.

    • #1
  2. Penfold Member
    Penfold
    @Penfold

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    You’re a better man than I am, Penfold. I’ve both read and listened to Moby Dick, and I think it sucked both times.

    No Randy, She blows.  Thar She Blows.  There, fixed it for you.

    • #2
  3. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Penfold (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    You’re a better man than I am, Penfold. I’ve both read and listened to Moby Dick, and I think it sucked both times.

    No Randy, She blows. Thar She Blows. There, fixed it for you.

    Thanks.

    • #3
  4. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I’ve been listening to books since around ’95.  I’ve leaned toward stuff I was supposed to read in high school and didn’t. I’ve listened to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Albert Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the Brontes.  And everything I listened to was good, except Moby Dick, which sucked.  Actually, I wasn’t all that thrilled by Anna Karinina, either.

    • #4
  5. Fred Houstan Member
    Fred Houstan
    @FredHoustan

    Penfold: Recently turning 58, I started to think it was high time I tackled some of the classics that I’ve shunned my entire life.

    I’ve taken the same approach, at 54. I’ve been a voracious reader of non-fiction. My wife is always trying to get me to read more fiction. We don’t share tastes, I figured I’d check out more of the classics. I’m trying to read “Lord Jim.” Not exactly a delightful experience, though it guarantees a good sleep right before bedtime. The Librivox recording of the same, narrated by Stewart Wills, is far more enjoyable and captures my interest far more readily.

    • #5
  6. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    @penfold : “No Randy, She blows. Thar She Blows. There, fixed it for you.”

    Like I just told my wife, Ricochet is like a great cocktail party only with nice people and sometimes less drinking.

    Great comment!

    • #6
  7. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    WillowSpring (View Comment):
    @penfold : “No Randy, She blows. Thar She Blows. There, fixed it for you.”

    Like I just told my wife, Ricochet is like a great cocktail party only with nice people and sometimes less drinking.

    Great comment!

    I like that “sometimes.”

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    I’ve been listening to books since around ’95. I’ve leaned toward stuff I was supposed to read in high school and didn’t. I’ve listened to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Albert Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the Brontes. And everything I listened to was good, except Moby Dick, which sucked.

    Pretty much my experience. Love all the other stuff as audiobooks (except for a rendition of Rob Roy read by someone with a Scot’s burr so thick I could not understand what was being said). But Moby Dick?  Sleep inducing. It put me to sleep commuting to work in the morning on Beltway 8. (Not advised.) I know it is supposed to be the greatest American novel ever, but it is a closed book to me. And I am the guy who writes about the sea.

    Seawriter

    • #8
  9. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    My husband and I had a similar experience. I had enjoyed reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods enormously. So we got the audio book version for a long car trip we needed to take. Bryson reads the text himself, and thirty pages in, we were falling asleep. For the sake of everyone on the road around us, we stopped listening. :)

    I really loved Moby-Dick, but I read it one chapter a day. At my suggestion, that’s how my kids read it too. We all loved it. Some of the writing needs to be savored, I think.

    It is my favorite novel.

    • #9
  10. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    More power to you, Marci.  I might be able to deal with it if someone cut maybe 300 pages out of the middle.

    • #10
  11. CarolJoy Coolidge
    CarolJoy
    @CarolJoy

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    I’ve been listening to books since around ’95. I’ve leaned toward stuff I was supposed to read in high school and didn’t. I’ve listened to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Albert Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the Brontes. And everything I listened to was good, except Moby Dick, which sucked. Actually, I wasn’t all that thrilled by Anna Karinina, either.

    Many  years ago, I was on one of the first Internet discussion groups. (Way back in 1991!) It was called The Well. There was a section for literary matters. One topic was named something like “Books we had to read as school classics that totally  sucked.” Melville’s Moby Dick got more votes as being suck-y than any other of the classics. Many of those commenting were published authors.

    @Randy Webster

    • #11
  12. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    WillowSpring (View Comment):
    Like I just told my wife, Ricochet is like a great cocktail party only with nice people and sometimes less drinking.

    Nah, pretty sure I make up the delta for those who aren’t drinking.

    • #12
  13. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    I have nothing to say about Moby-Dick mainly because I never read past the first chapter. It was a crashing bore and I read Marcel Proust’s.

     

    • #13
  14. Chuckles Thatcher
    Chuckles
    @Chuckles

    WillowSpring (View Comment):
    @penfold : … and sometimes less drinking.

    Nobody’s perfect.

    • #14
  15. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    By the way, there are many great reviews of Moby-Dick. They’re so entertaining. One writer calls it the book that repels the readers.

    • #15
  16. Chuckles Thatcher
    Chuckles
    @Chuckles

    Loved the whale.  Also Dostoyevski.  Tolstoy was passable.  Pride and Prejudice?  Not even a passable date flick.

    Metamorphosis was interesting don’t think I could stomach the movie, though.

    • #16
  17. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    LC (View Comment):
    By the way, there are many great reviews of Moby-Dick. They’re so entertaining. One writer calls it the book that repels the readers.

    • #17
  18. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    Here are the some of  the  others: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=10+classics+in+10+minutes

    • #18
  19. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    The beauty of MD lies with Ahab, Captain of a whaling boat, American, entrepreneur, capitalist, moralist but he is a tragic character who at this great height of ambition and achievement, finds that his achievement is not enough; he is obsessed with slaying of his nemesis, the great white whale that took his leg.  He is a man of great self deception, luring others into his obsessive hunt, and as he gets closer and closer, the depth of this obsession becomes insanity, yet as captain of his ship he is god on the quarterdeck, lording over his officers and crew.  Starbucks sees Ahab’s obsession; sees this chase as blasphemy, but Ahab is clever.  When it is finally clear to everyone that Ahab is indeed insane, it is too late.

    Melville spent time in the whaling fleet and MD is his tribute to that industry.  The tales of a vicious, vindictive white whale that smashed whale boats provided the plot for his tribute.  Ahab though, was Melville’s achievement, his Lear, his Richard II, his Macbeth.  Ahab is perhaps the first real American tragic hero, fluent in Puritan verse, at the height of American resource and entrepreneurship, self-made, rich, powerful and yet he risks all in an obsession with a whale.

    MD is not a perfect book.  But Ahab is a perfect, uniquely American, tragic, literary character.

    • #19
  20. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Chuckles (View Comment):
    Pride and Prejudice? Not even a passable date flick.

    You need to check out the 8 hour BBC flick.

    • #20
  21. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):
    MD is not a perfect book. But Ahab is a perfect, uniquely American, tragic, literary character.

    Melville should have made him perfect in fewer words.

    • #21
  22. Larry Koler Inactive
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    Moby Dick is written as an allegory, too — don’t forget. Melville wrote for his period (1850s) and he had already written other books which were for his readers absolutely fascinating: adventure, whaling and the South Seas. He is considered the first real artist to write about that world — Typee and Omoo were the documentaries of the day and I really recommend them: cannibalism, surf boards and surfing (first descriptions of this in the west), filthy whaling work, danger that only high profitability could explain, the sea, fish, mammals, ships, exotica, on and on.

    But Moby Dick was also written for people who had time on their hands and wanted good books to be long. Read about the allegorical aspects of his writing and this book will make more sense.

    It wasn’t popular at the time and Melville had put his all into it. He really never recovered. I think it was the 1920s before he was recognized as a genius.

    • #22
  23. Larry Koler Inactive
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    I think that Herman Melville was a mystic and that he went through a dark night of the soul. Moby Dick was his life’s greatest work. He really only wanted to write and live a life more like his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, but this was not to be.

    This is the end of “Dreams” from Mardi and a Voyage Thither:

    My cheek blanches white while I write; I start at the scratch of my pen; my own mad brood of eagles devours me; fain would I unsay this audacity; but an iron-mailed hand clenches mine in a vise, and prints down every letter in my spite.

    And continues with:

    Fain would I hurl off this Dionysius that rides me; my thoughts crush me down till I groan; in far fields I hear the song of the reaper, while I slave and faint in this cell.

    and the chapter ends with this oft-quoted thunderbolt:

    The fever runs through me like lava; my hot brain burns like a coal; and like many a monarch, I am less to be envied than the veriest hind in the land.

    • #23
  24. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    You’re a better man than I am, Penfold. I’ve both read and listened to Moby Dick, and I think it sucked both times.

    I took diction to Moby Dick.

    #HomeschooledLife

    • #24
  25. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Moby Dick has served its purpose, mainly as the first dirty joke elementary school boys tell each other on the playground.

    Personally I’m always mixing up my Captains. My favorite story is the one about Captain Kirk chasing after the great white space whale across the galaxies because he ate all the strawberries.

    • #25
  26. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    You’re so shallow, EJ.

    • #26
  27. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    The recent Brad Pitt movie, “Fury,” about tank crew in WWII is really “Moby Dick” in a different venue.

    White horse, instead of a white whale.  The movie starts with a guy saying his name.  Tank commander is a bit off his rocker.  The various members of the crew are vying for the soul of the new guy.  It’s all very clear.  But when I put that on wikipedia, someone got mad and took it off.

     

    • #27
  28. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Randy Webster: You’re so shallow, EJ.

    I’m in television. If you think that’s an insult…you’re wrong. I’m a shallow man in a shallow industry.

    • #28
  29. Eugene Kriegsmann Member
    Eugene Kriegsmann
    @EugeneKriegsmann

    I started reading Moby Dick forty years ago. I have reread it just about every year since. For me, it is like returning to an old friend. Even the chapters in which he describes the various species of whales and mistakenly calls them “fish” are enjoyable. However, my favorite moments in the book come when Ishmael and Quequeg share the room in the inn, and the sermon in the Nantucket church.

    There are many other chapters that I love to reread and re-experience. The more familiar you are with the book the easier it is to read and the more enjoyable Melville’s use of language becomes. It is, for me, the best of American novels.

    • #29
  30. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Moby DIck.

    I read it for the first time at 30ish, at a seaside vacation.  Loved it

    Read it again around 40, at home.  Loved it.

    Read it a third time after my first wife died, at 50.  Took much from it that I had not seen on times 1 and 2.

    Now reading it for the fourth time, a couple of chapters a day, as I enjoy being 61 and make a major change in my professional life.  Captain Ahab has become a sympathetic character, a Christ figure to me.

    Moby Dick is the greatest English novel I have ever read. Cynics like Randy who object to the length and tempo of the book (which inculcates in the reader the tempo of a three year whaling expedition) need to take their hands off from over their eyes.

    And Penfold, one of us caught your borrowing from George C Scott as Patton (1970): ” Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”.

    • #30
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