Moby Dick by Herman Melville

November 2022

Unlike many folks, I did not read Moby Dick in school. The book has always been on my radar as something I should read, in part because it’s a classic of English literature, and in part because I love all things nautical and figured a long book about sailing around looking for a whale would be right up my alley.

Knowing that the narrative action was interspersed with lengthy chapters on the biological characteristics of specific whales and whatnot, I approached Moby Dick with some trepidation, assuming it was going to be something of a 19th-century slog—a worthy undertaking, perhaps, but a bit of a drag nonetheless.

But here’s the thing: Moby Dick is funny. “Ishmael” is a wry, intriguing narrator, and his droll, understated humor had me chuckling and snorting right from the very start. The opening paragraph alone is delightful:

”[…] Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

Same, Ishmael. Same.

I was fascinated by Ishmael, his caginess about his identity (call me Ishmael, not my name is Ishmael), his insistence that he’s nothing but a simple sailor despite the fact that he makes learned references to history, literature, philosophy, world religions and science throughout the book, his sharp and often affectionate observations of everything around him (including bowls of chowder). Even that chapter on whale classification which everyone seems to cite as proof that reading this book is drudgework—that chapter is a laugh:

“I am aware that down to the present time, the fish styled Lamatins and Dugongs (Pig-fish and Sow-fish of the Coffins of Nantucket) are included by many naturalists among the whales. But as these pig-fish are a noisy, contemptible set, mostly lurking in the mouths of rivers, and feeding on wet hay, and especially as they do not spout, I deny their credentials as whales; and have presented them with their passports to quit the Kingdom of Cetology.”

And all of that is aside from the drama and excitement (and gore, admittedly) of the whale chase, and the lively accounts of life at sea, and the grand monomaniacal tragedy of Captain Ahab, and the moments of real pathos (poor Pip), and the general detail of a world long gone but brought to life once again by Melville’s marvelous prose.

So, I loved this book. I thought I might struggle to finish it, but instead I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to stay in that world with Ishmael as my guide. I imagine I’ll visit it again someday.

Further reading…