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When I was doing my master's degree, there was a debate going around the English department about edited revisions of classic texts. I specialised inWhen I was doing my master's degree, there was a debate going around the English department about edited revisions of classic texts. I specialised in medieval English literature at postgraduate level and a respected Arthurian academic had recently published a modern English "translation" of Malory's Le Morte Darthur that was causing a stir. It edited out some sections of the battle scenes, primarily the parts where certain characters died twice, or other plot holes reared their heads as a result of Malory having gone through no editorial or proofreading process whatsoever. Some academics felt that this was an excellent way of making the text more accessible to non-specialists; others felt that to edit Malory after all these centuries of letting his work speak for itself was sacrilege.
At the time I already erred on the side of the first group - after all, making the experience of reading a classic more appealing and available to more people has to be a good thing, and it doesn't take the original text away from people who chose to experience it that way or who want to study it. Reading Moby Dick has pretty much made up my mind. Moby Dick is, in most ways, a beautiful story that deserves its reputation as one of the great classics of American literature. Unfortunately, that great story runs to maybe 300 pages, and the novel clocks in at 550. Some fantastic characters - my favourites were Queequeg (unoriginally) and the massively underrated Captain Boomer - are introduced; meaningful relationships develop, such as that between Ahab and the little, traumatised cabin boy Pip that almost makes him reconsider his mission; there are some amazingly evocative descriptions of life at sea. However, they're overshadowed significantly by the longest chapters in the book, nearly all of which read like dense non-fiction. I'll admit that the chapters on the practicalities of nautical life and the whaling industry are useful, though modern editors would probably want to push them to supplementary notes rather than leave them sitting in the middle of the action, and edit down the more repetitive sections; but if you really wanted to make the book comprehensible to modern readers, cutting down the many chapters of disproved and just plain wrong science might be a starting point. I don't mind that Ishmael thinks a whale is a fish rather than a mammal; but I did kind of drift while reading his five-page argument because I know full well the science that disproves it. Literally the longest chapter in the book takes the form of an incredibly dry textbook supposedly written by Ishmael, that gives a completely redundant (because based on this error) classification of whale sub-species.
To go back to the beginning of my review, I'm not at all arguing for the purging of the original text of Moby Dick from our bookshops and libraries, just for the greater availability of a well-informed and judicious abridged edition, preferably curated by a marine biologist who knows which parts are safe to ignore. Yes, there are other issues that stop it from being a perfect book - all those well-established characters and relationships are, in the end, literally swept away before any of them have made the impact it feels like they were supposed to, which is either a brilliant commentary by Melville on the suddenness and randomness of death, or a space-saving technique to make more room for expansively disagreeing with other writers' descriptions of whales. We will never know. But while I would absolutely recommend reading this book - even if just to experience it, just to say you've done it - don't be surprised if you emerge wondering why Starbuck was so cool he's now got one of the most recognisable multinational brands named after him; or why Queequeg is remembered as Ishmael's fondest companion when, after their whirlwind bromance, they don't interact much at all for the latter three-quarters of the book, and the death of one has no distinctive emotional impact on the other. Just enjoy the spectacular scenery, and unless you're a hopeless completionist like me, don't feel bad about skipping the textbook sections - you'll understand the story well enough without them, I promise....more