I finished reading Moby Dick today. Sometimes I pick up a book and several hours later I slide it back onto my shelf, completed. It wasn’t like that with this monstrosity of a novel. (If there’s someone alive who’s read Moby Dick in one day, you’re doing it wrong.) Last September I found a beautiful online project commemorating the 150th anniversary of the book, which featured the book itself read aloud and offered a new chapter a day from “Call me Ishmael” to the epilogue. Each chapter was read by someone different, and the readers ranged from famous (David Cameron), to talented (Benedict Cumberbatch), to so bad that I found myself reading aloud in my best British accent to drown out the horrid monotony.
For as long as I can remember, Moby Dick has been sitting on a shelf in the living room, gathering dust and the sting of being adamantly and thoroughly ignored. You know how it is. “Oh, there’s Moby Dick,” says the would-be reader. “One Hundred and Thirty-Five chapters about the anatomy of the whale. How enticing.” And they push it aside in favour of something less… salty. This seems to be the general opinion about Moby Dick. When I tell people I’m reading it their eyebrows go up like a whale’s twin flukes and on their face is clearly written their fear for my sanity. And as long as I continue to use cetological analogies, that fear will probably persist. I can’t blame them, because when I was younger I twice attempted to begin reading the monolithic book and was unable to get past the first page. “Five Hundred and Twenty-One pages of THIS??” thought I. “Not a chance.” But with the discovery of the afore-mentioned website, I decided to give it another go. And, despite a few droning readers, I’m incredibly glad.
Melville’s book is a labyrinth, a sunken shipwreck glistening in divers’ torches, a hedge grown carefully to form a maze. The problem with reading a labyrinth, a shipwreck, a hedge maze, is that it takes so long to reach the centre, the treasure, the way out. 135 chapters there are, and not until chapter 133 do we meet the whale who lends the book his name. On the way, Melville takes us on innumerable different tangents; we study the history of whaling, the boatmen of the Erie Canal, the meaning of life in abstract, differences between species of whales, the life story of the ship’s carpenter, what happens if you fall asleep at the tiller, and, yes, the anatomy of the sperm AND right whales. The book is a maze. Ah, but the book is AMAZING. You see, we’ve become so obsessed with Destinations and Results that we forgot the excitement of exploring along the way. We push and prod our stories to fit the Perfect Story Arc and we start to think it’s the only way to go. We don’t remember that there’s a Character Development Story Arc and a Let’s Confuse People For Fun Story Arc and an Epic World Creation Story Arc and more. Each serves a different purpose and each is valuable for a different reason.
A one-legged captain with a soul, he says, that is a centipede. A mate torn between two loyalties. A ship that tows its wake around the world in search of a white whale.
It’s so hard to choose between pointing out the masterful plot points and allowing you to read the book yourself and be surprised! It’s absurd how many people have not read this book and yet think they have a decent grasp of what it means. I would love to cast all mistaken opinions overboard, but there are two reasons why I am not going to do that. One, it is very difficult to claim to be “right” about this book. There are many possible interpretations and that’s the beauty of it. Two, because you should read it yourself! Spend a year at it if you have to. It’s a masterpiece full of fabulous ocean analogies and characters as multi-faceted as the waves. It is a book of ardent belief, much of it contradictory. (In fact, it really feels as though Melville just sat down and wrote the whole thing from start to finish without bothering about continuity of opinion. That’s not the case, though; he wrote multiple drafts of it before he was finally satisfied. So the contradictions are purposeful and rather spectacular in the way they tug at your mind and pull you into bouts of thinking.) It’s a work of art; a study of humanity and madness; a celebration and a condemnation of the sea.
This is one of my favourite chapters. It’s only a few minutes long and it’s read by Benedict Cumberbatch (who, for those of you who aren’t familiar with him, is a phenomenal actor with a rich voice). You should listen.