I stated a few posts ago that I had started reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick a long time ago but never finished it. Wade commented on that post suggesting I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s small book Why Read Moby-Dick? . I took him up on the suggestion and easily finished this book in a day (Philbrick’s book, not Melville’s) and am now motivated to read Melville’s novel, again. I wish I could say that it would be the next one I read, but I don’t think it will be, but soon.
The interesting information Philbrick shares about Melville, the man and the process through which he went in writing probably his most famous novel, makes this a compelling short read. He brings the concepts, themes and history surrounding the novel to light for the average reader without making his book a substitute for reading Moby-Dick. His comparison of political and historical ideas in the 1850’s to today’s world gave new understanding to me about the story of Ishmael, Captain Ahab and a White Whale.
One specific point Philbrick makes is that the White Whale is a whale – not a symbol – “In the end he is just a huge, battle-scarred albino sperm whale, and that is more than enough.”
He goes on to indicate why we read classic literature anyway:
This is the fundamental reason we continue to read this or any other literary classic. It’s not the dazzling technique of the author; it’s his or her ability to deliver reality on page.
Throughout his book, Philbrick discusses the friendship between Melville and his “hero” Nathaniel Hawthorne. It seems that the two were very different in personality and at times Philbrick hinted that Melville was somewhat of a pest to the Hawthorne family. However, at the time of Moby-Dick’s publication, Hawthorne was the only one to recognize the talent Melville put into the novel. According to Philbrick, the novel needed some space and time before people could start to appreciate it.
One quotation from Moby-Dick that Philbrick uses several times (and one that I found intriguing) was Ishmael’s description of his own worldview:
Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.