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The Moby Dick Challenge: How to Read it Even if You Think You Hate it


Moby Dick by Herman Melville


Here we be,  “With all [our] hearties round [us].”

I work with a lot of book people.  I can only think of three other library employees who have told me that they have read Moby Dick.


I ran a reading group once called What Not to Read. We all got together to talk about books we hated. Out of a dozen of us, I swear four or five people all brought Moby, and not one of them had finished it.

But me, I’m all in. Since I can’t just pick one favorite, I’ll say I think Moby Dick and Blood Meridian are the two finest novels America has produced. Nothing else for me comes as close to being completely beyond imitation, although I’m going to toss Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust in there as well, just because I want you to read them.

And Lonesome Dove. Okay, onward now.

But just because something doesn’t inspire any imitators  doesn’t make something good. Not everything’s worth imitating, right?

Rather than dump a flaming wheelbarrow of impotent literary wrath over your scurvy head if you’re sitting there rolling your eyes, let me just tell you why I love the book.

One: I’ve actually finished it. But that wasn’t always the case. I finished it after making about ten runs at it, rarely getting past the first fifty pages. And so I thought about it just like most other readers I knew–it was boring. It was completely bogged down in whaling minutiae and men hugging in bed and looooong tangents into things that didn’t interest me in the slightest.

But I hadn’t met Ahab yet. Once he appears, I was as captivated as I was by the great pale Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. McCarthy has stated that Moby Dick is his favorite novel, and there are more parallels between them than I know, even as someone who’s read both books more than once trying to make connections between them.

Anyway, Ahab. The man can make a speech. Every time he hobbles up on deck to declaim and howl and shake his knife at the universe, it reminds me of Judge Holden lecturing on the cosmos and game theory while sitting around another bonfire after a day of slaughter.

Every time Ahab’s on the page there is a huge uptick in craziness and metaphysics. It’s fun reading, especially on audio.

The first time I made it through the book, it was because I was rushing ahead just to get to the next Ahab section. Now I’ve probably read it at least a dozen times.

One of the reasons I want to talk about the book is, like Meridian, I can’t stop reading it. I am always opening it up and reading a couple of paragraphs. It pulls me back. I am compelled to figure out why that is. I still don’t know, but I’ve got my theories.

The point is that, as much as I read, there aren’t many books that call me back like this. Books that get stuck in my head for reasons I can’t quite articulate.

I think this would be the case with more readers if they went further into the book. So here’s my challenge for you today: if you are interested in Moby Dick, or you’ve been thwarted by it in the past and you want to have another go, just read the Ahab sections. Fill in the gaps with sparknotes or Wikipedia or whatever, but read everything that Ahab says, particularly his conversations with Starbuck.

Also, read the chapter The Whiteness of the Whale. I think it’s the best chapter in all of literature. Actually, you know what, here’s a link to it. Love it or hate it, this is the kind of material you’re missing when you stop reading this book too soon. This is the kind of material that makes me put the book down and say:

“This might be the strangest book I’ve ever read. It’s not really about the whale at all…”

And seriously, either read some of it out loud or get it on audio. When I really hear a good reader getting worked up to an appropriately wild level when performing Ahab, it makes me want to be part of the frenzy. If you’ve seen the movie with Gregory Peck, you can probably picture the frenzy I’m talking about in the dark sacrament oath-swearing scene.

So good.

If you love the book or if you hate it, tell me why in the comments. If you’re wrong, I will harpoon your comment with a quickness and set you back on the path.

Also, if you love Moby and you haven’t read In the Heart of the Sea, I think you’d like it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sarah April 24, 2012, 5:23 pm

    I managed to make it through Moby Dick a few years ago as an audiobook. That summer I was doing a lot of yardwork, and while I did tune the story out sometimes, it was interesting enough (especially once Ahab showed up) that I got the gist of the it and get why it’s so highly regarded.

    But since I wasn’t always paying attention, now I want to go back and give it a try in print to see what I missed the first time through, and if I can decide if it’s really one of the best novels ever or just one of many really good ones.

    • Josh Hanagarne April 24, 2012, 8:03 pm

      Yeah, it’s pretty easy to zone out on audio. That’s how I got through Ulysses the first time. I think I zoned out for about 95% of it.

      • Crystal Bear May 7, 2012, 5:04 pm

        I think that the best way to get through the boring parts of a book is to add information, like seeing Elvis in a UFO. Okay, it might take the total point out of the book, but at least you can say that you’ve read the book… You probably shouldn’t be the one who writes on the cover.

        Loved meeting you in Colville last week… Crystal

  • Nikki April 25, 2012, 6:34 am

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to struggle getting into the book in the first place. You’ve made me think that perhaps I should give it another shot. Maybe when I have a looong vacation stretching in front of me and plenty of cocktails to get me through.

    • Josh Hanagarne April 25, 2012, 9:11 am

      And remember, if you hate it, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I just think the beginning is a poor introduction to just how weird and unforgettable the book is. And that, of course, is just my opinion. That’s what I love about books–we can all be right, and wrong, and react differently to the exact same things. One opinion is as valid as another and none of it can be proven anyway.

      That said, I’m right.

      • Nikki April 25, 2012, 1:12 pm

        Naturally 😉

  • Heather April 25, 2012, 8:57 am

    I love MOBY DICK. I don’t understand people who don’t like this, but rave on ceaselessly about The Scarlet Letter, which I think is Hawthorne at his absolute WORST. He wrote so much other really good stuff that it’s like he wrote Scarlet LEtter to pay his taxes or something. Blood Meridian is on my to-read-asap list. 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne April 25, 2012, 9:10 am

      Now that’s funny. I’ve never heard anyone rave about Scarlet Letter, whether they’ve read the other Hawthorne or not.

  • Jim Lochner April 25, 2012, 12:25 pm

    I had the same issue with MD – 8-10 tries before I finally said to myself, “This is good for you! Just read it!” (Totally the wrong attitude to take when starting a book, by the way. LOL) Once I got into the rhythm of the language, I was hooked. I even loved the chapters on whaling. It’s just a unique creation that I find fascinating. I’ve tried to reread it again, but you really have to be in the mood for it.

    And I’ll rave about Scarlet Letter too. Though, again, have to be in the mood to reread it. Then again, maybe it’s just me… 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne April 25, 2012, 12:51 pm

      I have nothing against the Scarlet Letter. Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it, and can appreciate its place in literary history without feeling like I need to return to it. The first time I read it was in a high school sophomore English class. Man, there was some howling about that book from everyone who couldn’t stand reading.

      • Jim Lochner April 25, 2012, 12:57 pm

        Like most books, they’re SO much better when they’re NOT read in a high school English class. 🙂 Grapes of Wrath was much more enjoyable the second time when I read it as an adult.

        • Josh Hanagarne April 25, 2012, 1:09 pm

          Ditto. I read GOW again about two years ago and couldn’t believe how much I loved it.

  • Frannie April 25, 2012, 5:33 pm

    This is incredibly timely – I just finished reading Moby-Dick about a week and a half ago (the print version and I finished it on the first try). I had mixed feelings – the story was good, but it gets so bogged down in all the whaling industry minutiae, that I lost interest in the story. I actually did alright with the first 150 pages, but pages 250-500 were a real struggle. I laughed out loud a few times – especially when Ahab goes off on his crazy rants – but ultimately, I didn’t really enjoy it. I don’t think it’s one I’ll re-read or go back to.

    I was inspired to read it by this article from Vanity Fair: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/11/moby-dick-201111. Might be something you’re interested in?

  • Eric | Eden Journal April 26, 2012, 5:35 am

    I read Moby Dick a number of years ago when I was on a classics reading kick. I went through a bunch of classic literature to reignite a love for reading that was lost through assigned reading in high school. Moby Dick was about mid-way through this process and was one of the hardest to read books I have ever read. I felt like a 2nd grader reading a high school level book. I thought it was a good book, and although difficult, I enjoyed it very much.

  • Brandi April 27, 2012, 6:41 pm

    Josh, who does your favorite recording of the book on audio? I’d love to try it out that way.

  • Don April 29, 2012, 6:31 am

    Ironic that Melville died, practically forgotten and never achieved commercial success (except for an early success, quickly forgotten) as a novelist until after he died. How does a book written in the 1850’s not achieve the status of “literary masterpiece” in the 20th century? Moby Dick was published when he was 32. He didn’t achieve much of any success for the next 40 years. How depressing is that?

  • Steve Vernon April 29, 2012, 6:52 am

    The trick to reading Moby Dick is to remember that you are actually reading two books in one. Every second chapter is a nonfiction dissertation on the whaling industry back in the day. Sort of an “IDIOT’S GUIDE TO WHALING” written with a lot of really big words and heavy atmosphere. It ought to be a snap if you’re a multi-tasker. I just looked on all of the nonfiction chapters as a chance to breathe before plunging back into the all-important story.

  • Don June 18, 2012, 8:01 pm

    I finished it. All 495 pages of it. Didn’t meet Moby until page 465. Do you think Melville would have had more commercial success if he introduced Moby on page 265 and ended it on 295? That and my vocabulary is obviously not nearly what it would have been 160 years ago. Boy, he had a way with words!