Matt's Reviews > Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

Leviathan by Eric Jay Dolin
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's review
Apr 26, 2016

liked it
bookshelves: maritime-history, science

The risk in giving your opinion about a book is that people may think you're an idiot. Worse than that, people may find out that, indeed, you actually are an idiot. This risk usually only runs with books that are acknowledged classics, or books that are trashy. For instance, you will definitely get concerned looks when you say you really hate The Great Gatsby or really love The DaVinci Code. (No offense to Dan Brown-o-philes).

This was my plight when I said I really disliked Moby Dick. Since these reviews are voluntary on my part, and since I'm no longer an indifferent high school student writing a five-paragraph theme based on borrowed Cliffs Notes since it's 1998 and my parents only have a dial-up AOL connection, I try very hard to avoid using the descriptor boring. The word doesn't mean much; if it means anything, it's usually that the person speaking it doesn't have much imagination. But with Moby Dick, despite much hemming and hawing, I eventually was left with that conclusion: I was bored. The book bored me. There, I said it.

Whenever I give this opinion, people invariably respond: "You just don't get it."

First, thanks for the vote of confidence, you condescending jerk. And second...Well, you're probably right. I don't get it. And I'm not going to waste my time trying again.

To quench my lingering thirst for whale blood, I picked up Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. I have two main things to say about this book. (1) This is a very good book about whaling. (2) This is a very good book about whaling.

Leviathan takes a chronological approach to its sweeping subject. It starts in the 1600s, with a rather pointless discussion about John Smith (yeah, that one) and the whales and ends in the 1920s, when most of the whales have been slaughtered and the human race had turned to raping Mother Earth for its oil. Sorry, I'm just bitter that I have to work on Thanksgiving.

Dolin is an engaging writer, and he is an explainer, so that there are tons of interesting factoids and stories with which to wow your wife/life partner/dinner guests/the guy standing next to you at the bar. Just make sure to space these things out, because no one wants a bunch of whale facts all at once. Dolin is at ease tackling subjects as varied as whale biology (with a side-focus on whale penises), types of harpoons, industry economics, and the gory, step-by-step processing of captured whales.

The book's scope encompasses many decades. However, because whaling is an industry, rather than a single historical event - or even an series of historical events - the nature of Leviathan is rather anecdotal. Though each time period is discrete and unique - in terms of economic climate (whalers did well in peace, and poor in war) and utilized technologies - the template is always the same: dozens of stories stitched together with background information. There are stories about successful hunts, and unsuccessful hunts; there are stories about rampaging whales and shipwrecks; there are ships stuck in the ice, and mutinies at sea, and attacks by angry natives that seem to leap straight out of a semi-racist Technicolor film from the 40s or 50s.

I've always kind of liked anecdotal books. There's nothing better than a good story, and if you're drunk while telling that story, or listening to it, then all the better. Of course, one man's anecdote is another man's aimless digression, and this makes for a read that is hit and miss. When the stories are lame, or seem off topic, the book is a drag. But when the stories are crisp, and exciting, and involve mutineers taking their whaleboats and attempting to escape into the Australian Outback, the pages just fly.

For instance, there is a section on whaling during the Civil War. The entire chapter is devoted to two Confederate Raiders wreaking havoc on the American whaling fleet. Now, I know - because I checked - that a lot of folks who read this book loved this section. I thought it was pointless. It has absolutely nothing to do with whaling, other than the victims were whalers. Obviously, the whaling industry was effected by these events, but Dolin tells the story from the point of view of the predators (the Confederates), not the victims (the whalers). Really, what Dolin is doing is filling pages with something he hopes will hold the reader's attention. It's the literary equivalent of Roland Joffre adding an Indian attack (!) to the end of his film version of The Scarlet Letter. In this case, the story didn't work for me. But it could work for you.

One major problem I often have with books like this - that is, micro-histories - is that they try to prove too much, or overstate the importance of its subject. Fortunately, Dolin mostly avoids this pitfall. He sticks to the vicarious, exciting, man-against-nature aspects, rather than trying to prove to us that "stabbing whales to drain their precious oils to make brighter-burning candles for rich people" actually changed the course of human events.

The big surprise is that there is very little critical analysis of yesterday's whaling industry - or today's. Reading Dolin's bio, with all his fancy, Ivy League degrees, I figured he'd at least touch on the fact that poorly-paid whalemen, at the behest of giant corporate trusts, practically denuded the seas of an entire species in order to reap a fantastic profit. Alas, there is no such preaching in Leviathan. So I added that little sermon for your edification.

One of the best things about Leviathan is that it isn't Moby Dick. If you want a good whale yarn, here it is! And in modern English! Then again, if you want to push forward with your plans to read Moby Dick over the holidays, this makes a good companion. Finally, if you read Moby Dick, and loved it, you coud read this book and scoff at its simplistic syntax, and its lack of Biblical allusions. Then you can leave a comment on my Moby Dick review telling me what a simple soul I am.
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02/22 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal You just don't get it.

But you do write some of the best three-star reviews around here. I look forward to an epic, white whale, of a five-star review some day.

Matt Esteban wrote: "You just don't get it.

But you do write some of the best three-star reviews around here. I look forward to an epic, white whale, of a five-star review some day."

I just haven't read something I've loved for awhile.

Early in my Goodreads days, I gave out 4 & 5 stars like candy. I was a bit of a cheap date. I've gotten a little stingier these days, I suppose. Probably it's one more signpost on the road to utter misanthropy.

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