Call me tardy.
After a stint in the Navy, two English degrees and an ocean of books, I finally got around to reading Herman Melville’s classic seafaring adventure, Moby-Dick.
Last January, I resolved to read Moby-Dick before the end of the year. I doubled down on that promise after seeing Moby-Dick performed at the San Diego Opera.
I read the Norton Critical Edition that’s been sitting on my shelf since I was an undergraduate student and a free electronic version that I downloaded via Goodreads on my iPhone.
This sounds like a terrible way to read Moby-Dick, but it was surprisingly efficacious. When I was at home, I read from the book, but when I was out and about, I was able to read a few pages here and there without having to lug the book around.
In fact, I read the first 40 pages, which feature Queequeg the harpooner, who has “tattooing burned like Satanic blue flames on his body,” while getting one of my own tattoos touched up in North Hollywood.
If the thought of reading a big book like Moby-Dick on a tiny iPhone screen strikes you as ridiculous, consider for a moment that Melville was hugely into technology.
Whaling tech. Sailing tech. Harpoon tech.
(I think if Melville were alive today, he’d be writing for Wired. He would have loved Angry Birds.)
The extent to which Melville describes the process of extracting whale oil is both gruesome and fascinating because there was a time in American life when whale oil was as “indispensable” as petroleum is today.
But even with two copies of Moby-Dick, I still lagged, and I was perilously close to reneging on my resolution before I picked it up and got through it.
I loved everything about it. But like most people, I’d never been able to get more than a few chapters in before abandoning ship. This time I was able figure out why.
Moby-Dick is not a sea-faring adventure.
Moby-Dick is a portmanteau: It contains a little of everything. It’s got travel narratives, sea songs, expositions of Bible stories, treatises on mid-19th-century whaling and descriptions of everything from the formalities of hailing a passing vessel to the Pequod’s deck fittings.
But nautical adventure? Not so much. At least not until the very end, which is awesome.
It’s more than the stories being told; it’s how Melville tells them. He deploys an astonishing range of styles: comic scenes, fiery sermons, scholarly soliloquies, tales told within tales.
The way he jumps around, ignoring the conventions of genre, is practically postmodern. Melville even slips in a portrait of himself “while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon.”
For a book about the pursuit of a whale that takes several years and crosses many oceans, Moby-Dick is anything but monolithic. It certainly wasn’t something 19th-century readers were accustomed to, and Moby-Dick went out of print well before Melville died in 1891.
Yet in one of American literature’s first, foremost and best-loved comeback stories, Moby-Dick became a classic.
In his cultural biography, Melville: His World and Work, Andrew Delbanco explains that the symbolism in Moby-Dick is so rich that it works regardless of which critical theory is in vogue. From the infancy of American academia to the radical ’60s to the present day, Melville’s tale of the perils of monomania has endured.
Now everyone knows that Ahab is synonymous with obsession and that the white whale is a symbol for something elusive that just might destroy you if you seek it out. It’s the classic “Be careful what you wish for” situation.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how direct the novel seems when taken from Moby-Dick’s point of view.
Think of Moby-Dick as Mike Tyson in his prime and Ahab as Tony Tubbs.
Ahab’s obsession is cute, but once he gets in the ring with the great White Whale, there can only be one outcome.
And that’s what Moby-Dick is all about: Death with a capital D. The Pequod is a reeking death ship crewed by living dead men. Ahab is a serial killer, a steampunk cyborg with a whalebone leg and a mind warped with revenge.
For this reader, the message is clear: Don’t fuck with Moby-Dick.
Ultimately, this resurrected classic is the story of what happens when we mess with things we shouldn’t be messing with.
Like the polar ice cap, for instance.
Perhaps someday, technologies like hydraulic fracturing and genetically modifying the food we eat will seem as dangerous and disgusting as slaughtering whales so we can boil their blubber in shipboard cauldrons.
Melville is no longer around to tell the tale, but something tells me that Moby-Dick is still out there, and our Ahab moment is just over the horizon.