Everyman's Reviews > Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
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May 28, 11

You know you should read it. You know you really should. And you're aware, sadly, that knowing the opening three words doesn't count as having read it.

But you would rather clean out the garage, something else you know you should do, than face chapter after chapter of arcana about whales and whaling. Between which you would rather do, reading Moby Dick or undergoing a root canal, you would have to toss a coin.

I know. I really do know. I was there. I was you.

But my reading group, feeling bravery in numbers, and all ashamed to admit, once it was suggested, that they really didn't want to read it, picked Moby Dick to read. So I was stuck. No more excuses. No more putting it off (when you've passed 60, putting off both becomes easier and has a more final feel to it.)

Enough palaver. So I read it. And now I can tell you, so should you. Not as a duty, not because it's a classic, but because it's a marvelous read.

Oh, yes, the whale stuff is all there. Why? Well, the 19th century was an age of scientific discovery, an age when there was no Discovery channel, no Sea World, no whale watch cruises. If you wanted to know about whales, you either had to go on a long and dangerous sea voyage, or you had to read Moby Dick. Melville is the Encyclopedia Britannica of whales.

And whaling was a vital industry for the Industrial Revolution. Petroleum hadn't yet been discovered, or at least its meaningful properties weren't known. Whale oil fueled the lamps of the Industrial Revolution. It oiled the machines of the Industrial Revolution. Whalers wee the oil field roughnecks of their day. Think of our world without oil or gasoline. That was the 1850s without whale oil.

Yes, you can skim over those chapters, but you'll be missing some really interesting information and understanding of a vital chapter in American history.

But Moby Dick is a lot more than whales. A whole lot more. It is, on its surface, an adventure story at sea with a cast of characters you have to read to believe. But beneath that, and not very far beneath, it is a philosophical treatise on the values of our developing pre-Civil War nation. It is the ultimate multi-cultural novel. It delves into religion, economics, sociology, psychology -- you name it, it's in there. The chapter on The Whiteness of the Whale is one of the most profound essays on semiotics to be found outside of a linguistics textbook (and in Moby Dick, you can understand it). (If you don't know what semiotics is, go look it up, don't just brush by it -- how do you expect to learn things if you won't look them up?)

Melville deals with the social dynamics of a small group of men cooped up on a small ship facing weeks of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror. He deals with hatred and revenge and the sane-madness of obsession. He has created a cast of characters more diverse than and every bit as interesting as I have seen in any other novel I have ever read other, perhaps, than the Canterbury Tales.

So. You can clean out the garage. Or you can read Moby Dick. (Of, if you're an exceptionally disciplined person, you can do both. But that's not likely, is it?) If you clean out the garage, it will stay clean for maybe a month. If you read Moby Dick, it will stay with you for your lifetime. It's up to you. What's more important to you, a clean garage or wisdom?

Choose wisely.

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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Zeke (new)

Zeke Perfect review E-man.

message 2: by Rebecca (last edited May 29, 2011 05:35PM) (new)

Rebecca Very nice Everyman. I sure will get to it.

Patrice Fabulous review, I can't wait to get back to it.

message 4: by Ted (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ted If this doesn't elicit a read from a reader, nothing will. Maybe even a re-read? At 70?

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