Why You Should Read “Moby Dick”

One of the main reasons that I started this blog was to help me slow down and process the wide variety of books I was reading. I find that writing is an essential part of the learning process and have found many times where my views have changed as I write about a topic that I have only read about. Moby Dick is one such example. For a literature class I am taking I had to chose a novel that I haven’t read and then write a book report titled: “The Next Novel You Read Should Be (whatever novel).” Of all the books out there I chose the classic Moby Dick. I was feeling rather pessimistic as I read through much of the book, knowing the report I’d have to write, but I can honestly say that as I wrote out my thoughts, once more my views changed. Below is my honest argument on why you should read Moby Dick:

“The Next Novel You Read Should Be Moby Dick”

An interesting verse is found within a lesser known book of the Old Testament which states, “There is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body.”1 While I am quite certain that this verse is not directly related to modern fictional works of literature, as an avid reader myself, I find wisdom in these words which extend beyond the immediate context and exegesis of the passage itself, especially within our modern “information age.” If the making of books was endless thousands of years ago, how much more is that true for today? I am of the opinion that readers of all types who are navigating today’s culture of overwhelming options should keep these ancient words in mind as we decide which books we are to invest our time in.

Enter Herman Melville from New York City, who lived from August 1, 1819 to September 28, 1891.2 Melville was an American novelist who saw only mild fame in his day, but now is perhaps one of the best known American authors. His lesser known works, Typee and Omoo, were what brought his name recognition in his own day, but here in the 21st century there is but one of his volumes that stands above the rest, the legendary Moby Dick. Although it was a fictional work, the material was drawn from his own experiences as a merchant sailor and his brief time spent as a whaling harpooner. All of this personal hands-on experience with his own story’s components allows Melville to fill Moby Dick with imaginative descriptions drawn from his real life involvement which add to the believability of the novel and enriches the fictional reading experience. While reading Moby Dick, because of Melville’s own life history, the reader gets to enjoy not just a fictitious account, but also a genuine description of a unique profession of the mid-19th century.

The novel opens with its famed line, “Call me Ishmael,” and immediately we are introduced to the narrator of the tale who was “tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote”.3 The book is told through the reminiscing eye’s of that merchant sailor turned journey-man whaler as he recounts his first whaling expedition aboard the humble whaling ship, the Pequod. During the very beginnings of his quest to join a whaling adventure Ishmael is pressed into discomfort with his odd introduction to the modestly-civilized savage Queequeg. But as often is the case, great initial discomfort leads to a deeper bond of lasting friendship. With the faithful Queequeg, who is a talented harpooner, at his side, Ishmael joins the Pequod’s quest for a quarry of that living oil which is found within the sea’s most mysterious fish, the whale.

Prior to even the first slaying of such a beast of fin, tail, and blubber, the Pequod is far from an empty ship. With a wide range of diverse characters we soon discover that this story shall be more than just a drama of man and fish. Though introduced to many men, one character draws intrigue above them all, the infamous Captain Ahab. The man is many things, but most of all, he is a man obsessed. Is it simply vengeance that fills his heart? Is it merely torn apart pride and body that brought him to this boiling hatred? Whatever that “cankerous thing in his soul”4 may be, one thing we know, Ahab must kill Moby Dick; that most appalling of albino sea creatures who, although absent of color, is radiant with imagery. Though Moby Dick seeks him not, Ahab shall “madly seekest him!”5 The man had faced the fish before, at personal cost to his own body, and yet, his restlessness can be quelled by no other victory than that symbol of living white floating lifelessly in a sea of its own crimson. The story revolves around this mad quest, “Has thou seen Moby Dick?” is the cry given to every foreign vessel. Though many have seen him, though several have fought him, not one has destroyed him. The whale lives. His whiteness forever haunts. Ahab’s insanity only waxes. The slaying of any other whale, though sought and fought with fire, will do nothing to cool the storm within him. Oh Ahab, let not the words of your conflicted mate be thine own epitaph, “Let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”6

Such is what you will find upon taking up Moby Dick; with an endless supply of literature within our reach, ought we not to have high expectations for those books that we deem worthy of our time, thought, and energy? In Moby Dick, I believe that you shall find such a work. The plot moves slowly, I have no desire to hide that fact from you, but when it moves, it flows wondrously and is filled with much to ponder. The characters within the narrative are rich, complex, and diverse, but, as noted above, none shall capture you like Ahab. The man is a masterpiece. Though simply eccentric, he is as enigmatic as the deep ocean itself. Though distant and mysterious, is he not frightfully understandable? Dare I say, relatable? “What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what conzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab?”7 No, he is not. He is man. He is humanity. Or at least that part of humanity, or that part of ourselves, that we do not know? That we cannot know? That we dare not know?

As one can clearly ascertain, the symbolism is rich within this work, I do not believe that I have truly gleaned even a small portion of the representations made in this book. They are vast. They are difficult. They are rarely perspicuous. I had picked up Moby Dick because it was the favorite work of literature by a theologian who has been influential in my life, R.C. Sproul, and by his recommendation I knew to expect some symbolism8, and yet I was not fully grabbed by the quality and depth of the symbolism in the novel until reading the chapter about the whale’s tail. It is certain that one is not reading a chapter merely describing the anatomy of a peculiar fin, but what exactly am I reading? “The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it… Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.”9 The book changed for me as I read these words, it was here, 86 chapters into the story, that I knew I had only seen the ripples on the surface waters above the Mariana Trench. Is this Melville speaking? Is it Ishmael? Is it a riddle against God’s declaration to Moses? Or is it me? What shall man do with a God whose face he cannot see? (New American Standard Bible, Exodus 33) What can a man do when he dissects even what he believes he has of such a being and yet, even then he cannot see? What would it take to see face to face? To finally see through that dim mirror and know fully? (I Corinthians 13:12)

If this book does not make the reader think, the reader does not understand. And though I only know in part, I can say Melville has written something worth diving into. C.S. Lewis, a theologian of even greater influence in my life than Sproul, (although he would protest against being called a theologian!) once stated that, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.10 Although he was referring more specifically to books of a directly theological nature (which Moby Dick in a different way certainly is), I believe that this rule, with an endless cycle of new books ever at hand, is applicable, and indeed, very wise, for all of our reading habits. Every culture has blind spots. Ours is no different. No matter the time period there are perspectives that are not being seen nor declared. We must go to past to properly interpret the present. Reading Moby Dick is an opportunity to do just that. Very early on, despite many surface differences the reader will discover that at a deeper level “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccles 1:9) Too often we think the latest crisis is ultimate, the present conflicts unheard of, but such thinking ignores the testimony of the past. Reading thick literature such as Moby Dick is a chance to challenge yourself to hear from a voice, surely influenced by countless other voices of his time, who will make you reconsider what you and I so often presuppose to be novel. Furthermore, this is a work that has been judged by time and still speaks, such works, especially as this one is from our own American heritage, are worthy of our attention. For all of these reasons, and others we do not have space for in this essay, Moby Dick is the next serious novel that you should read.

Did you catch that? The next serious novel. I have added that adjective due to the complexity of this work. Sometimes, I believe that it is just fine to read for the good easy pleasure and the simple enjoyment of just hearing a story, but that must not be the only way we read. As Lewis also said, “We are far too easily pleased.”11 Have we paid enough attention to the quality of the entertainment and pleasure being offered to us at record levels? Instead of Mozart we are given a symphony of “cat fail” videos. In the place of the treasures of Tolkien and the wonders of Rembrandt, we given, and consume, a million tweets and ten thousand filtered photos a day. Reading Moby Dick will take time, dedication, and energy. Reading the novel will tax your mind and, at times, Melville will certainly test your patience. Yet, you shall not read in vain. You shall draw from a deeper source of pleasure that cuts into this age of distraction. You will grow in your understanding of the world. You will see life through the eyes of a brilliant writer and his complex mind. After navigating this book, you will find other pieces of literature that you read far easier to digest, but perhaps, after having wrestled with the whale,  you will find many of them wanting by contrast. In reading this book you will be humbled by your lack of knowledge. And assuredly, you will know that you are not seeing all that is held within it, but, with the ghost of Ahab by your side, or perhaps, within your heart and mind, you will hunger to know what makes us fixate, fear, and hate the whiteness of the whale, what explains that hidden inscrutability of the fish in front of us, and what makes the sailors never cease to try to fathom what lies beneath the surface of the deep.

Citations:

  1. Ecclesiastes 12:12. Berean Study Bible. https://biblehub.com/ecclesiastes/12-12.htm
  2. All biographical information obtained from: “Herman Melville.”  Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herman-Melville
  3. Melville, Herman. Moby Dick: Editied by Guillermo Hernandez. Columbia, SC (2019, no publisher name listed in the book). 25.
  4. Ibid. 446
  5. Ibid. 469
  6. Ibid. 395
  7. Ibid. 448
  8. R. C. Sproul: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/r-c-sproul-a-novel-every-christian-should-consider-reading/
  9. Melville. Moby Dick. 320
  10. C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis Institute. http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/On_Reading_Old_Books
  11. C.S. Lewis. First Things. https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/02/we-are-far-too-easily-pleased

 

Whale

Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash

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