Derek's Reviews > A Whaler's Dictionary

A Whaler's Dictionary by Dan Beachy-Quick
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Jan 31, 2011

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It's interesting to note (I hope) what Dan Beachy-Quick's A Whaler's Dictionary is not. It's not a dictionary exactly, though it is laid out like one. It's not entirely a series of essays on Melville's extraordinary Moby-Dick, as the book jacket might lead you to believe. Nor is it exclusively a meandering meditation on Beachy-Quick's interpretations of the themes of Melville's masterpiece. It is, rather, all of these things combined as one, and the strange (and to my knowledge unique) mix generally works to the book's favor.

Beachy-Quick is a poet, and as such, the prose here takes on an admirable poetic quality--simply looking at this at a sentence-by-sentence level, one is in awe of his ability to craft a sentence that is both muscular and sensitive, both from the heart but also (quite frequently) from the intellect. I notice I'm now describing things in these overlapping dichotomies, a habit, I suspect, that is the result of having just finished A Whaler's Dictionary, where so much information is presented in this way.

Beachy-Quick begins the book, strangely and self-effacingly, with an apology for it (where he argues that "it does not mean to be an addition to the field of scholarship"), and encourages the reader to not read it straight through, but rather use it as a reference material to be perused while reading or thinking about Moby-Dick. I'm guilty of not following orders, and probably do some disservice to the book by reading it "inappropriately." With that said, I think there is some value in reading A Whaler's Dictionary this way, given that so many of the complicated themes Beachy-Quick strives to explain become clear only after reading multiple dictionary entries that tackle those same themes. Either that, or my mind simply requires repetition to have a complicated thought sink in, a possibility I've not ruled out.

If you're looking for an actual dictionary that might be of use to an 1850s whaler, then you're far too literal of a reader and are looking for the wrong thing--try, I don't know, a fucking encyclopedia. No whales are defined here. Instead, we're given a thoughtful (and, at times, difficult and opaque--a thorough working knowledge of biblical texts might be of use to you here) note of praise to Moby-Dick that comes in the form of ruminations on human nature, reading, communication, words, mortality, and the like.

A tough read, but an estimable one.
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