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Why Read Moby-Dick?

Why Read Moby-Dick? - Nathaniel Philbrick Philbrick's enthusiasm for reading Moby-Dick, especially aloud, is infectious. I'm listening to it as a playaway book, after having read it years ago (but never for a class). Philbrick has lots of short essays as chapters and they would be great to read just after doing a specific chapter in MD.I liked this one about the sea, especially in light of my recent reading of The Soundings. "We Americans love our wilderness: that empty space full of beckoning dreams, the unknown land into which we can disappear, only to return years later, wiser, careworn, and rich. Most of us think of the West as this hinterland of opportunity, but Melville knew that the original wilderness was the "everlasting terra incognito" of the sea. Even today, long after every terrestrial inch of the planet has been surveyed and mapped, only a small portion of the sea's total volume has been explored by man. Back in 1850, Melville commented that "Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one." p. 55From a "mighty, messy book" chapter. "Even the beginning of the book is a magnificent mess. Contrary to what many people assume, Moby-Dick starts not with Ishmael but with "Etymology," a listing of obscure quotations and translations supposedly collected by "a late consumptive usher to a grammar school." As if that's not enough, Melville follows "Etymology" with "Extracts," a seemingly endless compilation of whale-related passages that takes up a full 13 pages in the Penguin edition of the novel. From the beginning, Melville is challenging the reader with both his scholarship and his wit. By the time you reach chapter 1, you know you are in for a most quirky and demanding ride. There is an inevitable tendency to grow impatient with the novel, to want to rush and even skip over what may seem like yet another extraneous section and find out what, if anything, is going to happen next to Ahab and the Pequod. Indeed, as the plot is left to languish and entire groups of characters vanish without a trace, you might begin to think that the book is nothing more than a sloppy, self-indulgent jumble. But Melville is conveying the quirky artlessness of life through his ramshackle art. "Careful disorderliness," Ishmael assures us, "is the true method."For me, Moby-Dick is like the Oldsmobile my grandparents owned in the 1970's, a big boat of a sedan with loosey-goosey power steering that required constant back-and-forth with the wheel to keep the car pointed down the highway. Melville's novel is that wandering, oversized automobile, each non sequitur of a chapter requiring its own course correction as the narrative follows the erratic whims of Melville's imagantion toward the Pacific. The sheer momentum of the novel is a wonder to behold, barreling us along, in spite of all the divergences, toward the White Whale." p. 65-66Philbrick also talks a lot about the relationship between Melville and Hawthorne. From what I read here (I plan to at least skim a biography of Melville and/or Hawthorne as well), they were very different personalities and Melville sort of latched on to Hawthorne in a way that Hawthorne may not have welcomed. "in his letters to Hawthorne, Melville provides snapshots of his psyche during and after the composition of his masterpiece. The same propulsive poetry that animates Moby-Dick runs through these missives, many of them wildly manic in their inanimate revelations of what Melville was thinking about as his novel galloped, paused, then galloped again toward publication. I would go so far as to insist that reading Moby-Dick is not enough. You must read the letters to appreciate the personal and artistic forces that made the book possible." p. 107