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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 41-47

Chapter 46 Illustration by Wiebke Siem
I got so caught up in the holiday rush that it's been six weeks since I last mentioned the Moby-Dick Big Read project.  I have only managed to squeeze in seven chapters (41 pages) since the week before Thanksgiving, so my "continuity" is a little weak at the moment - and now I have to hope that access is to the audio chapters remains available long after the project is officially finished.  The current chapter is number 110, so I am now 67 chapters behind with little chance of ever catching up.

I cannot think of a better companion book to Moby-Dick than George Cotkin's Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick.  Cotkin has a way of bringing up points, questions, and issues that often appear to have very little to do with Melville's plot but, upon reflection, offer valuable insights and theories that few readers are likely to otherwise come up with.

For instance, Cotkin has been pointing out for a while just how fascinated Melville was by the racial issues of his day.  Now, in Chapter 41 ("Moby Dick"), Cotkin wonders whether or not Ishmael himself may have been a dark-skinned man.  Based on what we know about Ishmael and his sympathy for, and understanding of, black men, the idea is not all that farfetched, bit of a shock though it is.

Chapter 42 ("The Whiteness of the Whale"), for instance, is largely devoted to Melville's understanding of the "symbol of whiteness" and the "variety of associations that the color white has possessed throughout history."

Cotkin's Chapter 44 explores the influence of Moby-Dick on the following generations of writers who used the novel as a role model in their own quest to write the "Great American Novel," Norman Mailer being only one of many who did so.

Chapter 45 ("The Affidavit") in which Melville seems determined to prove that his whale creation was entirely capable of sinking a whaling ship, is one of my favorites so far.  Our narrator first tells of three first hand experiences he has had with whales escaping after having been harpooned, only to be retaken by the same harpoonier as much as three years later.  He also adds a story or two about whales known to have purposely rammed a whaling ship until it began to take on water, effectively making his case that what he describes in the novel is based upon reality, not fantasy.

And, finally, in Chapter 47 ("The Mat-Maker") a sperm whale is spotted...and the chase is on.

Interestingly, my favorite reader from this section of the book is poet and novelist Anthony Caleshu.  I say "interestingly" because Caleshu manages to skip one entire paragraph of the chapter and fails to come back to a footnote of more than half a page in length.  He also flip-flopped a couple of names given to recognizable whales, but none of the errors would be noticeable except to those reading along.  Despite his oversights, Caleshu's cadence and enunciation still make him one of the better readers to this point.
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