Book review: Moby-Dick

Moby-DickMoby-Dick by Herman Melville.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of reviewing Moby-Dick is.

I mean, really.

It’s the sort of book that will always be part of the canon, and I imagine people will always feel guilty about having not read it, or will imagine that it’ll be a lot harder going than anything else.

Which is kind of a shame, because it really is pretty delightful.

This is the second time I’ve read the beast. I read it as part of a literature course at university, and recalled that it was gripping, and deeply enjoyable. But over time, I too had been tricked into misremembering it as longer than it was – something of a behemoth to conquer.

(I wonder if many other books can have their perceived reading experience act as a stand-in for the target of the tale? Probably not many.)

But that’s all it was: trickery. Melville’s prose whips along at a clip, unlike other works of the period. The high level of nautical detail doesn’t bog the writing – a surprise! – and the tale is told with a lot more wry humour than I had recalled. Ishmael is a funny bastard, which makes his more considered, emotional movements much heavier when they land. The text is a playful one, shifting tone and form from one chapter to another, making use of stage directions and biblical cant in a manner that from other authors would seem tacked on. But for this rag-tag tale, it’s perfect.

(I am not too proud to admit that I, an intellectual, kept grinning whenever Ahab talked about his sperm-loving boys because apparently I’m 12.)

The book is kind of like a cetology-heavy episode of Seinfeld. Apart from the early establishment of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship and the final chapters’ action-heavy denouement, not a lot happens. There’s sailing, and some interactions with other ships or whales – but all of these are presented through the glass of routine. It’s an unspooling thread of facts and figures: descriptions of whale-gutting operations and tales of derring-do all come across in a curiously matter-of-fact manner. There’s a curious hint of the Bartleby blankness to come: it’s almost, at times, as if the narrator is becalmed. It’s odd, but it works.

As a tale of obsession, the book is an interesting one, because the mouthpiece of the work isn’t the obsessed party. He becomes obsessed with Ahab’s obsession, sure, but the story is really about the knock-on effects of one man’s fuck-everything-except-that-goddamn-whale single-mindedness on those around him. About how the workers thrive or suffer according to the peccadilloes of their too-human masters.

Again, I don’t know that this review will convince anyone to read this book. You probably should, if you haven’t. This reread underscored a lot of the reasons I liked the text in the first place, and made me feel good about the time spent giving it another go-around, which is notable, as often I find works suffer when revisited.

Moby-Dick is a classic for a reason, and like most classics, has a rep that you should completely ignore. This isn’t difficult or stodgy: it’s full of life, floating on some of the most enchanting writing about water ever published. Give it a go.

(And for god’s sake, ignore any academic writing on the thing until you’ve finished.)

My Goodreads profile is here.

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