My copy: free download on Kindle
Memorable quote: “He piled upon the whale’s hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
I should think almost everyone knows the story of Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest for what he at least perceives as vengeance against the white whale that took his leg. And “Call me Ishmael” has to be one of the most famous opening lines in literature. However, I can also understand why many folk haven’t got too far beyond that opening, because Moby Dick is quite a slog. Melville’s classic is really two books in one. It’s a gripping tragedy of revenge and obsession told in some of the most vivid and powerful and symbolic language I’ve encountered outside of Shakespeare, but it’s also a dry, painstakingly meticulous manual of the minutiae of whaling practice and whaling lore. I have a pretty high tolerance for nautical facts (remember all those “boring” polar biographies I love?) but even I found page after page of criticism of paintings of whales that I’ve never seen, or comparisons between two different types of bucket did not make for the most gripping reading experience. Still, I kept going and – let me tell you – the passages of action that occur intermittently between the whaling facts and figures would be worth twice the wait. The moral questions at the narrative’s core are also fascinating: what drives obsession, and can revenge really be regarded as such when it is pursued against a beast incapable of such complex thoughts?
It took me almost a month to get through Moby Dick: the opening section which explores Ishmael’s relationship with the “cannibal” Queequeeg is intriguing (and, considering when it was written has some very astute comments to make on racial and religious tolerance) and the final section is some of the most breathlessly exhilarating prose I’ve ever read, but in between there were times when I found myself really struggling to continue. But continue I did and by the time I finished it I understood fully why Moby Dick deserves so feature so prominently – as it always does – in those lists of the best novels of all time. This is such a clever book, and I honestly didn’t appreciate how clever until I’d finished it and was reflecting back on it. While reading there had been the continual temptation to skip all the whaling lore and rush to the next chapter that told of Ahab’s quest. The next chapter, that is, which advanced the plot. During the voyage, the crew encounter various other whaling vessels and while the standard practice on such occasions is to have a “gam” – to exchange gossip and useful information about whaling and sailing – Ahab wishes only to hurtle on his frenzied pursuit of Moby Dick. While Ahab’s monomania seems like a dangerous madness, there is, Melville reminds us, a little bit of Ahab in us all.