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Leviathan, Or The Whale

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  2,499 ratings  ·  345 reviews
From his childhood fascination with the gigantic models in London’s Natural History Museum to adult encounters with the wild animals themselves, Philip Hoare has been obsessed with these whales. Switching between human history and natural history, Leviathan is a gripping voyage of discovery into the heart of this obsession and the book that inspired it: Herman Melville's M ...more
Kindle Edition, 467 pages
Published August 9th 2009 by Fourth Estate (first published September 1st 2008)
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Average rating 3.95  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,499 ratings  ·  345 reviews

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Apr 03, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012
An acquaintance recently remarked that there has not been any good criticism of Melville in the last half-century. The comment got me thinking about the best critical texts on "Moby-Dick." They rarely deal with the novel itself, and generally read as semi-autonomous poetic works with enough artistic merit to deserve critical attention themselves. The critical history of "Moby-Dick" is incomparable to the critical history of any other literary text; limited is the number of academic jerk-off sess ...more
Jan 22, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Like most people, I have loved whales since I was a kid (though I have always been more fascinated by sharks...). This book's title, however, was a bit misleading... there were a lot of fascinating facts about whales, but it was honestly more about whaling than the whales themselves. Which made it a pretty depressing (albeit very interesting) read, all in all. And throughout, the book constantly references Moby-Dick: or, The Whale, and the life of Herman Melville. So, if you are very familiar wi ...more
Jan 11, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I don't know if I can finish this book. In the early pages the author wrote "I was ready to believe in whales" and I shut the book in anger. Now whenever I'm about to pick it up I remember, "I was ready to believe in whales" and start muttering crankily to myself something like the following "the fuck? ready to believe in whales? they exist. you don't believe in fucking whales. ready to fucking believe in whales? fuck this. tv time". so....i don't know if i can get past that.

So I finished it. I
Apr 25, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
First, let me say that this book should probably mention Moby Dick in the title, as nearly half of the book is about Melville's white whale. Now, I don't have any problem with reading about Moby Dick, but the focus on that book made this one a little uneven. At times I felt like I was reading a comp lit dissertation. At other times it is sort of a natural history and at others it is a bit of a travelogue. Occasionally there is a really interesting fact or tidbit, or a nice bit of writing that ca ...more
Are you a wildlife enthusiast looking for a really good overview of the current state of marine mammal science especially cetology? Me, too! Let me know if you find a book like that! Because it's not this one.

I'm really glad I"read this book by listening to it rather than by reading it as a dead-tree book. Listening to it aloud allowed me to argue with the author but still basically enjoy the book. If I'd been reading it with my eyes, I probably would either not have finished it, or it would ha
Sep 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I didn't realise I was so interested in whales! Well, perhaps I'm not but the brilliance of this book is such that it doesn't matter. It's a very engaging read and full of lovely illustrations. In fact, you get the impression the publishers were surprisingly supportive of what sounds like a slightly leftfield book (400 pages of why I'm interested in whales, the history of commercial whaling and Moby Dick) - they haven't crammed the text in and there are plenty of pictures (black and white). Howe ...more
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
I was expecting The Whale to be just that, a book about whales. And it is, but it is so much more. The Whale is a meditation on whales, on Moby Dick, on loss, on whaling, on history, even on life. Philip Hoare writes from a position of deep knowledge as well as deep love, and he writes about his subjects---whales, Herman Melville, whalers, whaling ships---as a starting point for his thoughts about vast themes---history, loss, loneliness, human connections---eloquently, almost following the model ...more
Dec 03, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
First let me say, this was a book challenge read. This wouldn't have been on my radar otherwise. So with that little disclaimer, this was just alright. It was loaded with research, facts and little lesser-known tidbits, and....lots of references to Moby Dick, Ishmael, and Herman Melville (btw, I didn't like that book). This book had its interesting moments, but I always went back to wanting this to be over.

I think it is sad though, how these magnificent beings were unnecessarily hunted and butc
Lew Watts
Mar 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you are interested in Whales, perhaps three stars. But if you, like me, have a deep love for Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, then overall this is a 4 star read. Loved it.
Sep 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Over the years you have been hunted
By the men who threw harpoons
And in the long run he will kill you
Just to feed the pets we raise,
Put the flowers in your vase
And make the lipstick for your face.

-"Wind on the Water," CSN

I am very pleased that I read this book. I learned quite a bit about whales of several different species. I understand that those expecting simply a natural history of the mother of all fantastic beasts could be disappointed or annoyed when they see how much of the book is devote
Mar 17, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2011
This book is the eloquently written biography of the whale, told from the perspective of an individual who is on a journey of discovery to satisfy his passionate desire for knowledge of these magnificent creatures. It is a richly woven tapestry which is part historical, party biographical and autobiographical and part zoology. The prose used is magnificently written and there is a real sense of connection, not only with the creatures which form the main subject of the book, but also with the aut ...more
Mikey B.
Dec 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary, nature
A captivating narrative on Moby Dick, Herman Melville and whales. One gets the impression that the author is smitten with Melville’s tale of the white whale – its’ grandeur and elusiveness. Indeed it is a story unlike any other. The author ventures to Melville territory in Cape Code and gives fitting descriptions of whaling life there in the 19th century.

He also explores the treatment of whales since the end of World War II – when millions more have been slaughtered by the increased efficiency o
Let me tell you, I was SO glad that I had previously read Moby-Dick or, The Whale and was relatively familiar with it before reading this book. This is really the author’s paean to Herman Melville, who he seems to have a bit of a crush on. I personally think Herman Melville was a little weird, so I was not totally thrilled with the deviation from whales to whalers, BUT the author’s unbridled enthusiasm for the topic carried the book.

I did have to fight the urge to gently remind the author that
James Devereaux
A favorite childhood novel, Watership Down, often features pictures of rabbits on the front cover. Though I was confused by the title when younger, unfamiliar with English geographical terms, I knew this book contained rabbits. However, if this book had featured a picture of a rabbit, a crocodile, and a mountain lion, I would expect that the crocodile and mountain lion would make significant appearances within the book. Though it is said, "do not judge a book by the cover," the cover nonetheless ...more
Aug 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
"It was shockingly strange."

I wish I had read this before reading "Moby Dick" instead of after. Hoare uses Melville's book as a touchpoint for his musings on whales and whaling, and his insights give a valuable counterpoint to the novel. I definitely would have absorbed more from from both Melville's factual and imaginative digressions, and I think it would also have enhanced for me the book's broader vision.

The sheer destructiveness, wastefulness, and voracious appetite of man is laid out in nu
Apr 01, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
They are Linnæan-classified aliens following invisible magnetic fields, seeing through sound and hearing through their bodies, moving through a world we know nothing about. They are animals before the Fall, innocent of sin.

As with everything in whaling, periods of frenetic energy alternated with soporific inaction or numbing drudgery. Time itself was different at sea. Far from land, the levelling ocean flattened out the days to be recreated in nautical dispensations, reordered from noon to noon.
Giulia (juliareadingdiary)

I don't read much non-fiction, but I was interested in the main subject of this book (whales) and it proved to be a great surprise! This book is beautifully interesting, instructive and thrilling at the same time.

The author deals with the topic in an original way, in fact in every chapter we find different sides of the topic interwoven together in a single narration: information about the whales as animals (naturalistic aspect), an analysis of how men have related to whales during history (e
David Bales
May 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
Outstanding book by Philip Hoare which walks in the footsteps of Herman Melville while writing Moby Dick, and a general history of whaling, with fascinating sidetrips. People have been whaling for a very long time, but the commercial-type whaling only dates from around the eighteenth century. Hoare goes all around the world tracing the development of whaling, the birth of the International Whaling Commission, (and the birth of the environmental movement) types of whaling and the creation of the ...more
Kerri Anne
This book took me what felt like ages to read (because it made me so sad). I've loved all kinds of whales since I was a little girl, and have always been drawn to stories about them. I took a course in college that was entirely focused on Melville and the whale. So while I already knew a lot of the information and back-story provided in the introductory chapters on whaling, and Melville, and Moby-Dick, I was committed to following this book to its watery end. And so I kept coming back to it, eag ...more
A whale is one of nature's most mysterious creatures. Its hulking presence is mostly invisible to man, since it resides under the surface of the sea until the need for air forces the creature to surface. I believe Philip Hoare has a reverence for the animal, however this book traces the history of the cetacean's encounter with mankind; a savagely violent story. It is only in the last few decades that observing whales has become more of a human pastime than killing them for their oil and other su ...more
Jul 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Evocative survey of cetaceans—part natural history, part cultural history, part memoir.
Tom Stallard
Mar 12, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
It's hard to know exactly what the aims of the author were with this book. Is it a travelogue, a journey through the authors eyes in the footsteps of Herman Melville, in a similar light to the excellent writing of Tony Horwitz, is it an literary exploration of Moby Dick, or is it simply an exploration of whaling and the whale. I'm not sure the author knows, and is desperately hoping that if he writes in emulation of what was the new and unique voice used in Moby Dick, perhaps you won't notice.

J.D. Field
May 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So, I have to preface this with the information that ever since I can remember I've been obsessed with the natural world. Recently my focus has been whales. I based an entire holiday around it (see more of my adventure here)and I wrote a novel of my own all about them (The Water Book.)
Given all of this, I was predisposed to love Leviathan. If you have any kind of magpie mind you'll find something to spark your interest here. It's crammed with astonishing facts about beasts that are already fasci
Apr 09, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In 6th grade, I watched the mini-series the Voyage of the Mimi in class, and promptly developed a crush on a young Ben Affleck and a longing to go to sea. I began my college career as a marine biology major, and clung to it until I was done in by calculus and the prospect of Organic Chemistry. I read Moby Dick in my junior year of college, and still regret not doing a semester at sea before changing my major to humanities. Reading The Whale brought back fond memories of the paper I wrote on Moby ...more
Donovan Hohn
A trans-Atlantic journey through the natural history and literary history of the whale. Like Melville's Ishmael, Hoare swims through libraries and sails over oceans. Unlike Ishmael, he also goes swimming with whales, not just any whales either, Folio whales. Along the way he reveals how our confused thinking about and knowledge of this most charismatic and mythic of marine mammals has changed in the last century and a half. We now know, for instance, that Melville was wrong about the great sperm ...more
This is an absolutely superb book, it covers pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about whales and man's relationship with them and the roles they have played not just in the world of business but also in that of politics and literature . Hoare has an obvious passion for whales and this comes through in his writing, which is descriptive and engrossing, even during the whaling scenes when you want to look away but can't. Melville's Moby Dick obviously appears a lot in this book, as quot ...more
Jan 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is probably one of the most best reads I've had in a long time. I felt dedicated to this book while reading it. Philip Hoare is a enthusiastic, hugely knowledgeable author who writes movingly and poetically about his own love of whales and their place in both their own and human history. This book is fascinating, with so many tales, whether they are from anecdotes, old scientific papers, literature or modern research studies.
Hoare's look at the history of whaling is especially good, highlig
Jun 26, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book spent a bit more time dissecting Moby Dick and Melville's life than I expected, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing, although it was a curveball. Otherwise, it was pretty fascinating, at least if, like me, you have any interest in whales/the sea at all. Like many contemporary books that hone in one a specific subject, sometimes it goes too far in trying to prove that *this subject* is the most important one in world history (ie- whales are at the heart of everything), but most of the ...more
Sep 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
WOW. The WHALE. Or, "Ah, the world, oh the whale."

Philip Hoare is a passionate storyteller and ridiculously engaging. Part memoir, part history, part travelogue, part natural history, part literary criticism (for all you lovers of Moby Dick!)--this is the kind of nonfiction I go for.

But, careful--this is not a beach read. What we have done to the whales is painful, and while I read and thought about this enormous and mysterious animal of the deep, I also had a sick feeling. What Alex Ross said
Mar 23, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This isn't my usual kind of reading - as much as I like whales I wouldn't say I was so fascinated by them as to want to read an entire book on them - and yet this had me spellbound. Philip Hoare has a wonderful, poetic way of writing, and his own love for and fascination with whales come over with every word. This isn't just a scientific book about whales; it's an exploration of the whale in human history, religion, literature. He talks about Melville's Moby-Dick as much as whaling and the whale ...more
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Philip Hoare’s books include biographies of Stephen Tennant and Noël Coward, the historical studies, Wilde’s Last Stand, Spike Island, and England’s Lost Eden. His book Leviathan or, The Whale won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. His last book, The Sea Inside, was published in 2013. His new book, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, is published by Fourth Estate (summer 2017), the University o ...more
“Whales existed before man, but they have been known to us only for two or three generations: until the invention of underwater photography, we hardly knew what they looked like. It was only after we had seen the Earth from orbiting spaceships that the first free-swimming whale was photographed underwater. The first underwater film of sperm whales, off the coast of Sri Lanka, was not taken until 1984; our images of these huge placid creatures moving gracefully and silently through the ocean are more recent than the use of personal computers. We knew what the world looked like before we knew what the whale looked like.” 0 likes
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