Saturday, 9 July 2011

Call me Ishmael... In defence of 'Moby Dick'

I'm quite a slow reader, and life is short. For this reason, long novels often put me off. I find them intimidating, and will more often than not go for a shorter option instead.

But if, given a truly bizarre set of circumstances, I was invited onto 'Desert Island Discs', Herman Melville's Moby Dick (600 pages) would be my book of choice. I would happily while away the hours with it, in my homemade hammock, enjoying some coconut juice and a cooling sea breeze.

Moby Dick is much-maligned: I've more often heard it criticised and described as 'unreadable' than I've heard it praised and celebrated. And the mission of this post is to stick up for this lovely book.

To summarise... Ishmael, our narrator, and his new friend Queequeg, sign on with the whaling ship Pequod, whose captain is the imposing and haunted Ahab. He has one leg missing below the knee, courtesy of a huge white sperm whale - Moby Dick. Ahab's quest for revenge on the whale becomes more and more fevered, until the great climax of the book - a three-day battle of wills between the whale and the crew of the ship.

But Moby Dick is so much more than a book about whaling. My first reaction on reading it, was that it was a sort of 'encyclopaedia of the sea', such is the detail with which it treats it subject. There are chapters dedicated to pen portraits of the crew-members, Nantucket and its inhabitants, the joys of chowder, and a comprehensive classification and description of different types of whale, all in beautiful, engaging detail.

And as with any great novel, all human life is here. The characters are richly portrayed and their relationships with each other are often humorous and touching. My favourite passage has nothing to do with whaling: it speaks of the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg, who first meet when they are required to share a bed in their temporary lodgings:

... I had felt a strong repugnance to his smoking in the bed the night before, yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them. For now I liked nothing better than to have Queequeg smoking by me, even in bed, because he seemed to be full of such serene household joy then. I was alive to the condensed confidential comfortableness of sharing a pipe and a blanket with a real friend. 

Yes, this is a long book. But in its favour, the chapters are very short - many of them just a few pages - making it more manageable. And it really does reward our attention. It is full of humanity and tiny, fascinating details, and makes for really compelling reading.

I do like to include pictures on the blog whenever I can. But I don't have a picture of a whale. So here is another view of John Kindness's 'Big Fish':

A big fish! Not as tenuous a link as you might imagine:
Ishmael refers to Moby Dick as a fish, rather than a mammal.  

If I've whetted your appetite and you think you might give the book the benefit of the doubt, I won't spoil the ending for you. I remember standing at a Metro station in Newcastle, half-way through the book, and an elderly lady saw what I was reading. 'I've seen the film,' she said. 'Gregory Peck. He gets him in the end, you know.'

Ah yes, but who gets whom...?


  1. I think people - or should I say pundits - have lost the art of and the reason for reading.
    They want to be titillated, not informed and moved...their egos are bigger than the book they are reviewing.

    Do you know Dana's 'Two Years before the Mast'?
    You might enjoy that too.

  2. Hello Sophie:
    We should certainly agree with you that there is an enduring quality about 'Moby Dick', partly made up, as you say, through strong characterisation an engaging plot and dramatic detail. However, despite all of this, it is not a novel to which we find ourselves returning. We are old enough to remember the 1950s film in which Gregory Peck played a very convincing Captain Ahab.

    Thank you so much for becoming a Follower of our blog. We are delighted to return the compliment.

  3. I've nominated you for a small project over on mine....but only if you have the time and inclination

  4. Thank you Fly in the Web and Jane and Lance for your visits and for taking the time to comment. I agree that perhaps it's not a book you come back to again and again, but I do feel glad to have discovered it and to have spent time enveloped in it!

  5. Incredible book, my favorite and you made a very good case for it. Cant wait for the Mystic marathon reading of it tomorrow. Great blog too!

    Scott Baxter

  6. Hello, Scott, and thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad you feel I did the novel justice!

    It truly is an amazing book. I can't even begin to imagine being able to put something on this scale, and with such an obvious depth of research, together into a novel - an amazing feat!

    The Twitter activity surrounding the book at the moment is very exciting - it's wonderful to see people celebrating it!

    Thank you again.

    Best wishes,