Welcome to another Classic of the Month! This month, we’re looking at a classic that many have heard of, but few have read (much less finished). And today, I’m going to talk to you about why this fascinating book about whaling and revenge should be next on your TBR list.
Classic of the Month
The pale Usher–threadbare in coat, heart, body and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.Moby-Dick, or The Whale, Herman Melville
What’s it all about?
Our narrator, one Ishmael, confides in the reader that when he starts finding himself growing restless and depressed, he finds it best to go out to sea. So he hires himself out on a merchant vessel until he feels better. This time, however, he has decided that he wants to try shipping on a whaling voyage. And the only place (to Ishmael) that is proper for whaling is Nantucket. The rest of the book is a recounting of Ishmael’s journey, including meeting the cannibal Queequeg and of course the mad Captain Ahab, who seeks to get revenge of a white whale that bit off his leg on a previous expedition. Along the way, Ishmael also regales his readers with copious whaling facts and his own philosophies.
Read this if you enjoy…
- Stories set at sea
- Tales of revenge
- Historical fiction with strong world-building
You’ve probably noticed that the opening lines I provided did not include the famous “Call me Ishmael.” That’s because the book’s true start comes before that–in a section called Etymology, which describes the old Usher you read about above, and provides the reader with a short list of how to say “whale” in other languages. Melville then follows with Extracts, a section of various quotes on whales. After all this, we finally get to that oh-so-famous “first” line!
Moby-Dick is usually decried for being a long, tedious slog, and as a reader who has made it from Etymology to Epilogue, I will fully admit that it can get dry. But, when Moby-Dick is good, it’s really good. And there are some passages that are not only extremely beautiful, but thrilling as well. This is one of those books that has something for everyone, if only the reader is willing to put in the time. Thrilling action scenes? Check. Rich characterization? Check. Philosophical debate? Check. Beautiful language? Detailed descriptions that put you “right there” in the middle of the scene? Check and check. This is a book that rewards dedicated readers. And yes, it will take you a while. But, it is so worth it. I’ve only read it once, but I look forward to picking it up again.
Also, as a quick aside, it’s not a library resource, but audiobook listeners might enjoy The Moby-Dick Big Read. Each chapter is narrated by a different actor or Moby-Dick scholar or enthusiast. It’s free to listen to online and a lot of fun. My personal favorite rendition is Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn, read by Nigel Williams.