Bram's Reviews > Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
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Sep 29, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: 2009
Read in October, 2009

This is a curious and unwieldy book. At times (and too frequently) it reads like the more excruciatingly detailed scenes of Robinson Crusoe; at others the zany songs, goofy scenes, and curious characters prove Pynchon and DFW to be no pioneers in their lighthearted pursuits. The descriptive prose occasionally builds into an alliterative tornado where form, content, and raw urgency combined to leave me buzzed and page corner-bending. There’s a staggering amount of wisdom dressed up in whale-speak and ship-speak, easily justifying the frequency with which this book is taught and revisited. The dialogue and soliloquies are reminiscent of (and well-nigh the equal to) Shakespeare: the rhythm of speech, if not technically similar, certainly conjures up the Bard and, regardless of the accurateness of my observation here, offers exquisite aesthetic delights. Indeed, this is the first book I've tried reading/whispering aloud in parts since moving through Paradise Lost earlier in the year.

After a jocular commencement full of quaint homoeroticism and ominous adumbrations, the feverish intensity of the story picks up with Ahab’s declaration of his quest to find and kill the white whale. Not only does this scene kick the plot into motion, but it also signals the beginning of Melville’s flirtation with other perspectives outside of Ishmael’s semi-omniscient narration. Once I’d become familiar and comfortable with the mode of storytelling, we started bouncing from Ahab’s point-of-view back to Ishmael over to Stubb, and the story suddenly revealed a passionate and intimate aspect that would become so important with Ahab’s consuming madness as the book reached its climax.

Everything in the story feels thoughtfully-constructed, but it occasionally falls into a predictable pattern that likely gives the book its reputation for—dare I say it—boringness. When the style changes feel fresh and organic (as in the perspective switches mentioned above), the mood and flow are well-affected. Frequently, however, Melville seems to be following the modern indie rock playbook: build up tension…build…Build…BUILD... release, ahh. Except here the tension comes from subjection to the minutest of details on whales, whalers, and whaling life that often come across as more creative and artistic Wikipedia entries. But then, right when you can’t take it anymore, and you drift into reverie contemplating the risk of eye injury from excessive computer-screen exposure, Melville switches into plot/action mode and the story takes off again…for 3 pages. (There are about 150 chapters in this book, which kinda makes you wonder about the institution date of the rule that literary and genre fiction must be distinguishable by chapter length).

So is Moby-Dick the Great American Novel? I don’t think so, but it may at least be The Quintessential American Novel, in the sense that it's imperfect and it chronicles single-minded, results-driven obsession as well as the destruction of living mystery and mastery of the awe-inspiring Unknown. I couldn’t help but bring my modern day whale knowledge and sensibilities to the text (a failure on my part), and yet as soon as the brutality and glorification of whale-killing reached its peak, Melville preempted and precluded my ready protestations. Indeed, he mocks all of us who eat meat and would object to the brutal whaling he describes:

But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he? and that is adding insult to injury, is it? Look at your knife-handle, there, my civilized and enlightened gourmand dining off that roast beef, what is that handle made of?—what but the bones of the brother of the very ox you are eating? And what do you pick your teeth with, after devouring that fat goose? With a feather of the same fowl. And with what quill did the Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Cruelty to Ganders formerly indite his circulars? It is only within the last month or two that that society passed a resolution to patronize nothing but steel pens.

And so I must begrudge Melville his whaling apology as I simultaneously confront my life’s own pusillanimous contradictions. In any case, Melville’s position shouldn’t be oversimplified—he’s interested in portraying both the glories and horrors of war and concedes that there are, in fact, ideals (however impossible/impractical they may be to attain): in legend, the first whale attacked by our brotherhood was not killed with any sordid intent. Those were the knightly days of our profession, when we only bore arms to succor the distressed, and not to fill men's lamp-feeders.

Within a novel of such depth, where the literal nearly always represents something(s) more, such a close eco-reading is perhaps uncalled for. This book is overflowing with humor (French translation scene, anyone?), epic struggle, unhealthy human obsession (What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures), destiny, societal escapism, and good old-fashioned adventure. And never have I read a superior description of the sinusoidal curve of life; of our empty pursuits; of the fundamental patterns to which we subject ourselves (and are subjected):

Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing! (i.e. soul-killing) Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from the world's vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when -- There she blows! -- the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life's old routine again.

Depressing and heartening. Life.
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Reading Progress

10/07/2009 page 121
18.91% "Just leaving the island..." 5 comments
10/19/2009 page 205
32.03% "Man, Melville was rough on Albinos..." 10 comments
10/28/2009 page 404
63.13% "Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish...brilliant."

Comments (showing 17-66)





Stephen Is Enriched the Kindle version? Or is that just the line of classic name?


message 65: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram No Kindle for me--I love the feel of books too much.


message 64: by KFed (new) - rated it 5 stars

KFed Haha. Bram, are we really reading this at the same time? We'll have to discuss!


message 63: by [deleted user] (new)

Another great book, Bram. Enjoy.


message 62: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram A man has already shaved his face with a harpoon...I think I'm going to like this.

I'd love to discuss. So far the tone is a little more playful than I was expecting.


message 61: by [deleted user] (new)

TONS of homoeroticism in this book.


message 60: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Yeah, for starters, the narrator's obsession over sleeping with Queequeq was interesting.

Was Melville gay? I can't remember.


message 59: by [deleted user] (last edited Sep 29, 2009 03:35PM) (new)

Melville's sexuality is still subject to a lot of speculation. He was married, but this, of course -- especially at the time in which he lived -- doesn't really mean anything.


Stephen Amen to that, and read Billy Budd then ask that same question. lol


message 57: by KFed (last edited Sep 29, 2009 04:08PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

KFed DK wrote: "He was married, but this, of course -- especially at the time in which he lived -- doesn't really mean anything. "

Heh. Sad (or rather fortunate, depending on you) that it still doesn't mean anything.

Present recently-married company excluded, of course.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio DK wrote: "TONS of homoeroticism in this book."

There's some British Naval saying or joke about a made up saying along the lines of how many miles out to sea it is before fucking your fellow sailor is no longer considered homosexual...


Eddie Watkins He was very attracted to Hawthorne; probably confusedly. I'm confusedly attracted to Hawthorne, too.


message 54: by KFed (new) - rated it 5 stars

KFed MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "DK wrote: "TONS of homoeroticism in this book."

There's some British Naval saying or joke about a made up saying along the lines of how many miles out to sea it is before fucking your fellow sailo..."


Half a mile, maybe.

And yeah, Eddie, I hear Hawthorne was hot.



message 53: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Kameron wrote: "DK wrote: "He was married, but this, of course -- especially at the time in which he lived -- doesn't really mean anything. "

Heh. Sad (or rather fortunate, depending on you) that it still doesn't..."


Mais bien sur :)


message 52: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow Melville was queer. Full stop.


message 51: by Bram (last edited Sep 29, 2009 05:15PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Hawthorne

Hawthorne. I would.


Stephen Wasn't Hawthorne the one whose wife got to close to the fireplace and went up in a blaze and died before the entire family could put all those skirts out?


message 49: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow That's how Hillaire Belloc died. Did a Mrs. Havershim.


message 48: by Matthieu (last edited Sep 29, 2009 05:45PM) (new)

Matthieu I don't think he was gay. Though there are certainly arguments on both sides.


Stephen I was wrong, it wasn't Hawthorne's wife.


Stephen Melville and Hawthorne were good friends. Honestly, who cares if they played show me yours, I'll show you mine.


message 45: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Well, Hemingway and Fitzgerald did that (or at least Fitzgerald showed his to Hemingway).


Stephen Oh Bram you naughty boy. How on earth do you know that?


Stephen When you give me the proof I'll flog that issue in the Hemingway group.


message 42: by Brad (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad I think Hemingway talks about that in A Moveable Feast, but it as been a long time since I read it.


Stephen Brad, thank you. Bram, you're not off the hook. Why on earth would Fitzgerald do such a inane thing as show Hemingway, the least attractive man on earth, his willy?


message 40: by Bram (last edited Sep 30, 2009 04:59AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Zelda told him it was too small, and so he was paranoid about it. He told this to Hemingway, who offered to take him back to the men's room and take a look. Fitzgerald agreed, showed him, and Hemingway told him he was normal. Then Hemingway went around telling everyone he knew about this (and published it in A Moveable Feast), making fun of F. Scotty and his small penis.

I think that's more or less the story, although I haven't yet read the book.


Amelia Re: message 8

Elton John was married...once.


message 38: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Wow, you weren't kidding:

Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg - a cosy, loving pair...We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we; when, at last, by reason of our confabulations, what little nappishness remained in us altogether departed, and we felt like getting up again, though day-break was yet some way down the future.

It doesn't even stop there.



Stephen Bram watch your blood pressure.


Amelia *watches Bram breathe rapidly into a brown paper bag*


Stephen Bram is a "married man."


Amelia And.....?


Stephen And he's a very good boy. :-) Also, his wife is very athletic and could hurt him severely.


Amelia YOU said to watch his blood pressure, I wasn't suggesting anything that would get him injured!


Stephen hahahahahahahaha.


message 30: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Indeed, I had to take a weekend off from Moby-Dick for medical reasons.


Eddie Watkins Did you really read this on your computer?


message 28: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Mostly, yeah.


message 27: by Eddie (last edited Nov 02, 2009 09:38AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eddie Watkins Wow! was it a project gutenberg-type edition or something of higher quality?

Never mind, now I see what "Enriched Classics" means. I don't know how you could do it!


Bill  Kerwin Stephen wrote: "Wasn't Hawthorne the one whose wife got to close to the fireplace and went up in a blaze and died before the entire family could put all those skirts out?"

No. It was Longfellow.




message 25: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram The Enriched Classics is actually a mass market-type copy I have (about 5-10% of the reading was from this). After realizing that most famous books published 80 or so years ago are freely available online, I decided to dedicate a quarter of my GR time to reading this. Worked out pretty well, although I have a suspicion that screen-reading probably dampened my enjoyment somewhat (as compared to curling up in a chair with the real thing).


Eddie Watkins Oh, so it was a project gutenberg-type text on-line?

Sorry for the grilling, but this is something that really interests me; that is, people transitioning from book reading to screen reading.


message 23: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Yes, exactly--it was a University of Virginia eText book. Here's the link: http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/...


Stephen Bill wrote: "Stephen wrote: "Wasn't Hawthorne the one whose wife got to close to the fireplace and went up in a blaze and died before the entire family could put all those skirts out?"

No. It was Longfellow.


Thank you! It was driving me crazy.


Stephen Bram, gorgeous review.


message 20: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Thank you, sir!


message 19: by Brad (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad I am too damn lazy to read everyone's comments to this point, so if I echo the sentiments of others I apologize, Bram.

This is a fine (and I mean this in its most complimentary form) review of a fine novel. You captured much of what I love about Moby-Dick, its depth, its playfulness, its excruciating pacing and deliberate manipulation of the reader's tolerance, but mostly you captured this: "So is Moby-Dick the Great American Novel? I don’t think so, but it may at least be The Quintessential American Novel, in the sense that it's imperfect and it chronicles single-minded, results-driven obsession as well as the destruction of living mystery and mastery of the awe-inspiring Unknown." Well said. Glad you enjoyed your time with the Big Dick.


Stephen Ohmmmmm, Brad said big dick.


message 17: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Thanks Brad--it was certainly trying at times, but it's a remarkable book. It had a much more 'original' (terrible word choice, but not coming up with anything else at the moment) feel to it than what I was expecting (in terms of structure, style, content, et al.). Melville was a unique mind and talent.


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