Thursday, August 01, 2019

Happy Birthday, Herman Melville

Happy 200th Birthday, Herman, this is a big one for you.  We have spent a lot of time together in the last few decades, and I have cursed your name more than a few times, but in the end it was all worth it.

I won't pretend to be a fan of Melville's writing, but it's not because I haven't tried. As I explain in the post below (one originally posted to Book Chase on August 31, 2013), the day that I finished reading Moby Dick was one of the proudest days of my reading life. I know that sounds a little strange, but considering that I finished the book more than 40 years after I first started it, I think you'll understand why I felt that way.


An August 31, 2013 Post:

This is not a "review" of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.  Another one of those wouldnt do much good.  What follows are simply my thoughts and impressions on finally finishing a book that I first attempted, and failed to complete, more than four decades ago.  Since that first encounter, I have probably read the first quarter of Melville's classic another ten times without getting any further into the novel.  But this time I made it despite setting the book aside for two or three weeks at a time.  And I feel like I finally successfully climbed Everest.

Most everyone knows the basic plot of Moby-Dick: nineteenth-century whaler loses his leg to a ghostly white whale and becomes obsessed with revenging his loss by killing the huge creature.  Nothing less will do.  What most people who have not read the classic do not realize is how few pages of the novel are actually devoted to advancing Melville's plot (my own rough estimate is that less than half of the book's more than 600 pages do so).  The rest of the book, the portion that most often drives readers to distraction, is Melville's primer on the nuts and bolts of whaling, whaling ships and their crews, and whale anatomy. 

Melville, through the voice of his narrator, builds a strong case that those risking their lives providing a product so critical to the nation deserve much more respect and appreciation than they are accorded by the public.  He is also determined that his readers get a proper sense of the size of the creatures whalers were, under the harshest of conditions, battling for the benefit of those who took it all for granted.  Melville accomplishes both admirably.  The risks these men took with their lives on the open sea are astounding, and modern readers cannot help but be impressed by their skill and courage.

Moby-Dick has a Shakespearian quality to it, even to what at times sounds almost like stage direction inserted by the author as an aside.  This quality is most apparent in Melville's dialogue and the way he has his characters regularly speak their deepest and most private thoughts aloud.  Both the structure and the philosophical nature of the book contribute to its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written - despite the generally terrible reception the novel received when first published. 

Bottom Line:  There is so much going on in Moby-Dick that whole books have been written about the novel.  It is, I suspect, on many more "To Be Read" lists than it is on "Read" lists, and this is understandable given its length and complexity.  Readers, however, should never permanently abandon their effort to read this classic novel.  Just the feeling of accomplishment one gets when that final page is turned is reason enough to keep Moby-Dick on the nightstand as long as it takes.


  1. This is one of those books I feel I really should've made the effort to read but never have. I have however read one book by Herman Melville so that's something at least. It was Redburn and I absolutely loved it. I do have Moby Dick on my tbr and White-Jacket, also a book called Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Nasland, it looks interesting but is a bit of a door-stop.

  2. It's definitely a challenge, Cath. I have a copy of that collection pictured up above, and I've been meaning to dip into it to see what Melville's other writing is like. I just haven't been able to force myself to do it, even though I suspect it will not give me the problem that Moby Dick gave me.

  3. I have to admit, Moby-Dick is one classic I've never wanted to read. But I've heard a lot about it. :)

    1. I'm glad I finally finished it, but it did sometimes seem like a chore. If I remember correctly, the book only became popular long after it was first published and Melville had died. So we are not the only ones who struggled with it.