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Monday, March 9, 2009

Moby Dick

Moby Dick
by Herman Melville
audio book: 15 hours (15 cassettes)
first published in 1851

"Thar' she blows! Moby Dick - the white whale!"

Can anyone tell me why it is always "she"?

*** The Plot ***

Do I really need to tell you this? Ok, ok ...

"Call me Ishmael." That's the first sentences, and he is our narrator. Ishmael decides to try a new adventure and ships off on a Nantucket whale ship bound for three years of whale fishing around the world. Once the ship is out to sea, the strange captain of the vessel, Capt. Ahab, announces his true motive - to hunt and kill the legendary white whale that took his leg when last they met. (This part always reminds me of Capt. Hook in Peter Pan, and how he has the ongoing battle with the crocodile who took his hand.)

But the book is about much more than the ship, the crew, and the whale. It is a history of whaling, a whale anatomy lesson, a scientific investigation, a how-to manual for a whale ship, and much, much more.

*** The Audio Version ***

I've tried to read this book a few times in the past and never made it very far, hence my decision to try the audio version. I really WANTED to get through this book and I figured this was the best way to make that happen.

The narrator, Frank Muller, did an excellent job. His interpretation of the various voices of the character, the pacing of the story, and the feeling behind the words were all perfect. I highly recommend his version for it's "understandability" in spite of Melville's wordiness (which I'll get to shortly.)

*** What I Liked ***

In spite of Melville's wordiness (which I'll talk about more in the next section) there are some things that I really enjoyed about this book.

First, the beginning is really good! I was captivated by Ishmael and I loved reading about his first encounter with Queequeg. In fact, everything up until the time they actually boarded the ship was excellent. If the entire book continued in that manner, I would have been thrilled. Alas, it did not.

Second, whaling is exciting. Living in the modern age, we know so much about whales that the idea of hunting them is simply appalling. But Melville writes so vividly of the excitement, anticipation, and intense danger of hunting a whale that I was drawn into the chase. I actually wanted to BE on the boat rowing with all my might after a whale. When he got to the part where they actually killed the whale I was justifiably horrified though - it is NOT a pretty picture.

Third, I loved the parts about whale anatomy. Most people I've talked to say they hated these parts but I have to disagree. Here's how I approached it ... Imagine that I'm were living in the 1850s. I've never seen a whale, nor do I ever expect to. The few pictures of whales I've seen all seem to contradict each other. And now I'm reading a book that not only explains how to hunt and kill a whale but exactly what it looks like. Amazing! Think of how exciting that must have been! I put myself into that mindset whenever the whale sections came up and I found that I quite enjoyed them.

Fourth, this is an era on the edge of scientific discovery. Scientists were still arguing over whether a whale is a fish or a mammal, no one had seen a whale under the water, there was no consensus regarding the whale's blowhole (did it spout water, air, or poison?), and so on. Whalers were at the forefront of knowledge about these magnificent creatures - discovering their migratory patterns, for example - and I was fascinated to be along for the ride. This feeling of discoveries about to happen is the same I felt when reading THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, by Jules Verne.

*** What I Didn't Like ***

Oh boy, are there LOTS of things ...

Melville is WORDY. Add that to the fact that he perfected the art of digressing and you get a book that is almost impossible to get through. The man spent an entire chapter on the idea of "whiteness" for goodness sake!

Of course there is the inherent racism in all (almost all?) books written during this time period. Not a big fan of that, but it is what it is.

The beginning of the book was so good in part because Ishmael made such a great narrator. I loved his personality and his humor. However, once on board the ship, he is often replaced by an omniscient narrator and various other characters. Their perspectives were not nearly as interesting to me as Ishmael's and my interest in the book waned quickly.

My biggest complaint is that the book drags. The pacing is off, there are too many digressions, and no enough time is spent on the story itself. They don't even site Moby Dick until the end of the 14th cassette ... and there are only 15 cassettes in all. And in the final scene - which should be very exciting - I got bogged down with all of Ahab's speechifying. Disappointing to be sure.

*** Movies ***

There have been several movie versions of this book, but I've only seen the one with Patrick Stewart. I don't recall being all that impressed with it though.

However I just read that there is a possibility of making two movies - a new version of Moby Dick, and the true story of sinking of the whaleship Essex - in the near future, and they both look very interesting. You can read about it here and see the comments I bounced back and forth with the author as well.

*** Connection to LOST ***

I've been going over the book in my mind, trying to figure out how it relates to the show LOST (since that is, after all, why I read it). I don't see any direct parallels, but I did come up with something ...

Ben is a lot like Capt. Ahab. Both have a specific goal in mind (Ben wants to get back to the island and be in charge, Ahab wants to kill this particular whale) and they will do absolutely anything to achieve that goal. Their own ambitions seem to be the only important thing. They are both willing to allow other people to die (or in Ben's case, to actually kill people) in order to achieve their goal.

So I hopped over to Lostpedia to see if I was right and this is what I got: "On the raft, Michael suspects that Sawyer is on the raft because he has no reason to live, a form of honorable suicide. In Melville's Moby Dick Ishmael comments on how whaling is his substitute for the 'pistol and ball,' his suicide."

WHAT?! That is all you got out of Moby Dick?! My theory is much, much better than that, thank you very much. Hmpf.

*** In the End ... ***

I'm really glad that I finally got through this book, even if it was on audio. I can't say that I liked all of it but I did really enjoy some of it. I also can't imagine ever wanting to read it again although I will happily watch a movie of it.

Have you read it? Reviewed it? Seen the movie? Maybe you love Melville and think I've been unnecessarily harsh (really?!). Whatever you've got to say, I want to hear it.


Lezlie said...

Overall, I really enjoyed Moby Dick when I read it a couple summers ago. There were parts that dragged, but like you said, there were parts that were really great which balanced it all out for me.


Ti said...

I don't really know why but this is one book that I will force myself to read at some point. I have picked it up at least three times and thrown it across the room each time but I have it stuck in my head that I must read it.

You giving the audio book a shot is not a bad idea at all. However, I don't do well with audio books even with my long commute. I get distracted and then miss parts of the story.

I am thinking I may tackle this one, once and for all this summer.

Rebecca Reid said...

I loved this when I read it in college. I agree that the whaling chapters don't have be all that annoying -- it's just a different perspective. I don't recall why I loved it -- maybe because I do like wordiness sometimes!

Interesting thoughts about the different narration once they got on the ship. I'm planning on rereading this, maybe next year, and I"ll watch for that this time around.

Neil Richard said...

Seeing as it's been ages since I've read this book and I didn't like it very much, my theory is that the whale is like the Island on LOST. Think about it. Ahab is out looking and looking for the whale. Just as Widmore is out looking and looking for the Island. And that's as far as my theory got.

Alyce said...

I read most of it in high school, and even though I didn't like it, I didn't judge it too harshly because I thought part of the reason I disliked it so much was because of the teacher I had. Do you remember the teacher from Ferris Bueller (anyone...anyone?) - that was what my teacher was like.

Amy said...

I read this in my junior year of high school, and the thought of it still makes me cringe, possibly because of the nympho-teacher I had who made us discuss all of the phallic imagery at length. Plus, I just thought it was really, really boring. I don't think I'll ever be tempted to pick it up and see if I've changed my mind over the years!

raych said...

This one blog I read blogged through reading Moby Dick in real time, and after a few weeks haitus, he was all, I thought I'd be floundering a bit when I returned to the book, but I picked it up where I left off and oh yeah. Nothing. Is. Happening.

I read THE WHOLE THING and the chapter on white nearly killed me. We should all go out and get tattoos or something.

Jill said...

I have read Moby Dick three times. Sigh. Once in high school, twice in college. It is not my kind of book, and I never did enjoy it. I did have one professor who made it more interesting, with his take on the way Melville examined and discarded various belief systems as the book goes on. The other professor kept referring to the whale as the great white phallus. Repeatedly, and with great enthusiasm. I am so happy I will never have to read this one again! :-)

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Lezlie - you're right, there WERE some really good parts in there.

Ti - I felt the same way, like it was something that I should read at some point.

Rebecca - I'd be interested to see what you think the 2nd time around.

TK42ONE - That is an excellent theory! And just like the whale destroys Ahab in the end, maybe the island will destroy Ben?!

Alyce - I was lucky to never have an English teacher like that, thanks God!

Amy & Darla D - Hmm, two teachers obsessed with the phallic-ness of the whale ... glad I missed those classes. :)

Raych - Tattoos it is! Just like Quequeg, right?

Serena said...

I attempted to read this book years ago and hated every minute of it. I can't even remember if I finished it. Which is a sad testament for a former English major in college.

hopeinbrazil said...

Congratulations for finding a way to "read" Moby Dick. I've owned it for years and years, but haven't mangaged to get through it yet!

Norm said...

Like most, I read Moby in high school with a teacher who was less than inspiring. Ironically, I have been teaching in a private school for 30 years now and have taught--and read--Moby Dick for 25 of them. I have to admit that on the first reading I hated it. When I returned to the book in graduate school, I discovered to my amazement that I loved it. Something had changed, and I've got to think it was me. I loved the reference somebody made to tattoos, because I have a tat of Moby on my forearm. Every year I manage to convert four or five students into Moby fans, but it takes some doing, and I don't at all disagree with those of you who see the language as dense. Why do I love the book so much (especially the "Whiteness of the Whale" chapter), and why do I find somethign new each time I read it? Remember when Ahab tells Starbuck that Moby is a mask, and that he wants to fight through the mask to see what is hiding behind it? That holds true for the literal narrative as well. It is a mask that hides perhaps the most profound and prophetic commentary on American society ever produced in the literary history of the U.S. If you get too caught up with the literal story, the plot, you are bound to get hopelessly mired, and bored, by all the verbiage. There's a whole other story lurking beneath the surface of this book, and Melville hints at it often--like the sharks that glide along just beneath the placid surface of the sea. You need to "dive," as Melville called it, to find what he's offering you.
This comments has gotten way too long--sorry!

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