Moby Dick

January 27, 2021

I finished Moby Dick. Not that many people have.

That’s hardly surprising: you need stamina to read the book; it’s the K2 of novels. Sample sentence: “But few thoughts of Pan stirred Ahab’s brain, as standing like an iron statue at his accustomed place beside the mizen rigging, with one nostril he unthinkingly snuffed the sugary musk from the Bashee isles (in whose sweet woods mild lovers must be walking), and with the other consciously inhaled the salt breath of the new found sea; that sea in which the hated White Whale must even then be swimming.”

This goes on, in my edition, for 536 pages.

I bought the book innocently at the Madoc Book Worm, a used book store, for $1, which was more than the cover price, 75¢, of my Signet Classics edition, printed in January, 1962, about six months before I was born.

Then I tried to read it. It was winter, and I was riding the streetcar (in the Before-Times when people went to the office). I kept the book in the inside breast pocket of my overcoat (how very 19th-century) and tried to squeeze out a few pages on the way to work. Then I tried reading the thing before bed but it sat there for months, taunting me.

Over a year ago I stood in the Great Hall at Union Station in Toronto, waiting for my sister and brother-in-law, who were changing trains on their way to Pearson and then Italy. My brother-in-law noticed what I was reading and said, “I read it.”

“Wow,” I said.

“It took me three tries,” he said.

One can say it’s a great book, but just don’t try to slog through it. Mark Twain remarked at one point, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” This applies to Moby Dick. I do not recommend it. Just to give you one detail: the sailors don’t actually see the whale until you’ve read more than 500 pages. That’s a lot of exposition, or, as my highschool English teacher put it, rising action. (We didn’t try to read this book in high school, but we did tell this joke: “What’s pink and lies at the bottom of the ocean? Moby’s dick.”)

Finally, on p. 510, Ahab, who is up on a mast, calls out: “There she blows! –there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”

Then things get exciting.

Not to blow it for you too much, but Herman Melville never explains why the whale is named Moby Dick.

There are a lot of cool biblical and historic references to the teachings of West, of the East, half of which went over my head, and a paragraph on p. 412 that for whatever reason discusses each sign of the zodiac. Oh yes, he goes there. And elsewhere.

The lasting triumph of the book or at least one of them is how Melville builds the character of Ahab, the malevolent, single-minded whale hunter bound on revenge for the whale that took his leg. He does a good job of that. The vital importance of whaling to the economy in the 19th century is kind of cool.

I taped up the spine of my copy; it’s still good, and I am going to donate it back to the Bookworm for the next sucker.