Posted in Non Fiction

Why Read Moby-Dick?

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.


Posted in Short Stories

“The Bell Tower” by Herman Melville

A long time ago I started to read Moby Dick.  I never finished it.  Maybe someday I will, but this week I read Melville’s short story “The Bell Tower”.  The language was older both because the story is older and it’s set sometime in the Middle Ages, but the language was beautiful just the same.

The story revolves around Bannadonna, an Italian artisan, who, in building a bell tower, keeps upping the ante in artistic and technological (for the middle ages) achievement.  Allusions are made to the Biblical story of the tower of Babel inferring that the artist wanted to be God.  It raised the question in my mind as to where does art end and technology begin or can they somehow be intermingled.  Bannadonna sometimes seemed to be an artist and other times seemed to be an inventor-perhaps one doesn’t have to exclude the other.  I was also reminded of a certain literary Doctor who created a monster.

The story itself is simple but it’s a story by a brilliant writer.  I found it in an anthology called Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages.  The stories were selected by Harold Bloom.  I’ve read some other things by Mr. Bloom and while he can be somewhat of a fuddy-duddy about literature, he’s picked some great stories in this collection.  The picture below is of Melville, not Bloom.