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.
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.