Such it is with “Why Read Moby-Dick,” a slim, 2011 volume by Nathaniel Philbrick that not only convinces you that the classic whale tale is worth the read, but romances you into taking it on.
Truthfully, it’s highly likely that the only people who might be attracted to a book about the greatness of Herman Melville’s lengthy, meandering, sometimes-psychedelic masterpiece are those who have already read and enjoyed it multiple times and need but the tiniest prod to revisit it.
Still, with the 166th anniversary of the U.S. publication of “Moby-Dick” coming up in mid-November -- and with the cool chill of autumn making for just the right atmosphere in which to go out to literary sea -- Philbrick’s love letter hits the spot.
So why read it?
“Moby-Dick” is not just a novel about chasing a whale across the high seas-and it’s not just a huge metaphor for Americans’ often-tragic pursuit of a dream. It is the American epic, containing, in Philbrick’s words, “nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals” that fomented the country’s violent separation from Britain and led to its near self-destruction four score and seven years later. Those same passions and contradictions “continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.” And along that march, generations of Americans have continually turned to Moby-Dick to understand not only themselves but also their adversaries. In Ahab, the Greatest Generation saw Hitler, and today’s generation sees “a profit-crazed deep-drilling oil company in 2010” and “a power-crazed Middle Eastern dictator in 2011.”
(Indeed, it’s hard not to think about a certain self-centered president when reading Ishmael’s observation about Captain Ahab: “But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him?”)
Philbrick notes how much of our culture has been influenced by “Moby Dick” -- “plays, films, operas, comic books, a television miniseries, and even a pop-up book,” -- by no means an exhaustive list, to which I’d add the beautiful symphonic tone poem “Of Sailors and Whales: Five Scenes from Melville” by the American composer William Francis McBeth, which you can listen to for free on YouTube.
But Philbrick adds a reality check: “Those who have never read a word of it know the story of Ahab and the White Whale. Moby-Dick may be well known, but of the handful of novels considered American classics, such as ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘The Great Gatsby,’ it is the most reluctantly read. It is too long and too maddeningly digressive to be properly appreciated by a sleep-deprived adolescent, particularly in this age of digital distractions.”
(Another aside: Perhaps those of us who love “Moby-Dick” find ourselves in the intersection of a bizarre Venn diagram including that other overly long, obsessively detailed and deliciously digressive classic, “Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace. Such fans will squeal with glee when they come across Melville’s reference to “metempsychosis,” and I was surprised to know that university research papers have been written on Wallace’s study and use of “Moby-Dick” in his work, and similarities in both authors’ investigation of obsession and addiction.)
To recap: Moby-Dick is really lengthy, excruciatingly thorough and sometimes trippy. Many have avoided it like the plague for a lifetime.
However, as Philbrick puts it, “Melville’s example demonstrates the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference.”
Philbrick concludes that, “Instead of being a page-turner, the book is a repository not only of American history and culture but also of the essentials of Western literature.”
After my third reading, I concur. But more so than that, “Moby-Dick” is actually entertaining and enjoyable. You get through interminable descriptions of whale types and whale oils and are eventually rewarded with drama, action, and the death-bed poetry of a mercurial sea captain.
Sure, once the marathon nearly ends and you’re relieved to finally arrive at the iconic line, “There she blows,” you may find yourself wishing that Captain Ahab would shake his angry fist and yell “You’ll never ... Sink! This! Boat!” at old Moby in much the same way his doppelganger, Lieutenant Dan, did in “Forrest Gump.”
But I bet you won’t be disappointed about who gets to swim another day.