It is a relief to turn to the honest American book about the whale. A captain wants to kill it because the last time he tried to do that it bit off his leg while escaping. He embarks with a cosmopolitan crew who don’t like home life and prefer this way of earning money. They are brave, skilful and obedient, they chase the whale round the world and get themselves all drowned together: all but the storyteller. He describes the world flowing on as if they had never existed. There are no women or children in this book, apart from a little black boy whom they accidentally drive mad.
From Alasdair Gray’s unwieldy cult classic Lanark. In this particular episode, a version of the author of the novel Lanark itself (a conjurer-king, not named Gray) discusses and describes the great national epics; he chooses Moby-Dick as the American epic. There is no listing of a Scottish national epic; presumably Gray intends his novel to fill that slot.
So I bought yet another copy of Moby-Dick, despite the many several editions already in our home.
I’d looked for an edition of the Barry Moser illustrated M-D for years—casually, in used book shops—but after a few (ahem) glasses of chardonnay, I bought one for next to nothing on eBay.
Moser’s etchings are superb, of course, and they most often illustrate the technical, scientific, or historical aspects of the novel. Great stuff.
At the bookstore today with my youngest child, I couldn’t resist yet another copy of Moby-Dick, despite the many several editions already in our home.
Just love Hieronimus Fromm’s vivid illustrations here.
This is my beloved copy, a hardback Signet Classic edition that’s the size of a mass market paperback.
I love this copy because it was the one that I read when I really read Moby-Dick (I also kinda sorta ‘klept it).
These abridged versions for young readers are the same, despite the cooler updated cover on the right, which I guess fooled my wife into buying another copy for me to read with my daughter. (She liked it the first time though, so….). Even the illustrations are the same:
More of a resource than a reading copy—although as Norton Critical Editions go, this one’s footnotes aren’t too obtrusive. Handy dictionary of nautical terms.
I am a huge fan of Bill Sienkiewicz. And Moby-Dick. I wish his Moby-Dick adaptation had no words though.
My dad’s childhood adaption, a Grosset & Dunlap from the early ’60s.
Sam Ita’s fantastic pop-up adaptation fails to mention Herman Melville’s name at all.
Despite the gross oversight, it’s given me hours of joy with my kids.
Moby-Dick was published on October 18th, 1851 in England.
The English printer Peter Bentley’s text contained numerous errors, including leaving out the epilogue, where we learn that Ishmael survives to bear witness to disaster.
Although the American printing in November of 1851 emended many of these errors, the early reviews of Moby-Dick were scathing, and Melville’s career and reputation deteriorated.
It wasn’t until the advent of literary modernism in the first decades of the twentieth century that the world caught up to Moby-Dick.
Needing another book the same way I need another hole in the head, I nevertheless dropped by my local used bookstore to browse—the place is huge, and a day of grading term papers made me feel zapped and perhaps depressed. Anyway. Spotted a beautiful Penguin edition of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi and had to have it. Here’s a passage some soul saw fit to dogear:
I had never heard of Georg Büchner or his novella fragment Lenz, but it was shelved next to Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas and both stood out because of their odd shapes.
Here are the blurbs for Lenz, which more or less sold me:
Finally, I did not buy yet another edition of Moby-Dick, despite this midcentury Rinheart cover—but I had to snap it to share:
[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of George Orwell's novel 1984. I think 1984 is an important dystopian work (although I think Huxley gave us a better book and a more accurate vision in his novel Brave New World). Anyway, I find myself fascinated by one-star Amazon reviews for some reason (see also: See also: Melville's Moby-Dick, Joyce's Ulysses and Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress) and to be clear, I think some of the one-star reviews of 1984--including ones I cite here---make some pretty valid points (others are atrocious, of course). I've preserved the reviewers' unique styles of punctuation and spelling].
1984 is a fictional novel by George Orwell.
I don’t really like futuristic based books…
1984 might have been scary 100 years ago, but not now.
…the plot is fairly simplistic but with redundant lines. “Oceania has always been war with Eastasia.” “Freedom is slavery.” “Big Brother is watching you.” In other words, it was nothing but a lot of nonsensical fillers.
I truly believe that Orwell’s sole purpose for writing this novel was to encourage anarchy, and to convince his readers to be subordinate to authority.
The text was so long and unelaborate.
George Orwell is no wordsmith and his style of writing stinks and flows like verbal diarrhea.
i give this book one star i had to read it for class and i know it’s suposed to be a “classic” but god itis awful. first of all its NOTHING like the future is probly going to turn out. second of all every one says the aurthor george orwell is so trippy and wierd but i think he’s just trying to cover up for the fact that HE CAN’T WRITE. please george do us all a faver and stop writing books.
I am not at all intrested in the goverment. This may be part of the reason that I didnt like it.
I personally think big brother is the man.
It is crude, heavy-handed, superficial propaganda.
…a boring, unoriginal one-hit wonder who wanted to make a buck rehashing much-talked-of, much-written-of themes.
It is dark, depressing, and I finished reading it feeling like less of a human than when I started.
Quote from “1984”: “Humanity is nothing more than one man shoving another man’s face in the mud.” So, “1984” tells us that humans are completely useless and we have no reason to exist.
It was just thoughts of a sad man with perverse and suspicouis thoughts. The main character constantly dwelled on how horrible everything was and eventually how he was going to fight against it. But never did, unless you count having an affair and writing in a journal or buying an old paperweight.
Keep your dictionary handy.
I was greatly dissapointed with the redundent and unecessary words.
For me the book took a downword turn during the time where Winston started having a love affair with some girl.
…it doesn’t make any sense to think that a novel like this one is really any better than say, Michael Crichton or Stephen King.
The main character, Winston, daydreams about raping Julia, who later becomes his dirty mistress. Then about a hundred pages later, they get caught by the Thought Police, thrown into “prison,” and are brain washed. That’s pretty much what happens.
…and must we really keep reading in full detail the horror and disgust of Winston’s vericose veins?!
Today, his book is the modern bible of the paranoid disgruntled white male and other conspiracy nutcases.
Human beings are BETTER than this…
In addiction, the contradictions throughout the novel were frustrating.
On the surface it seems to be an interesting glance at the “future” that our grandparents envisioned. This however could not be farther from the truth. 1984 is in fact a lame, boring, and novel that attempts to be philosophical.
…a monumental ode to nothingness, an ideologically streamlined state of unbelievable being.
And please for the love of God don’t read that “Brave New World” book by Hoxley. It is twice as worse as 1984.
Last time I ever read a history book by this Orwell scrub. He doesn’t know a thing about the 80s. Not ONCE did he mention Def Leppard or Karma Chameleon.
[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick. To be very clear, I think Moby-Dick is fantastic---but I also enjoy seeing what people compelled to write negative reviews of the book on Amazon had to say. What follows are selections of one-star Amazon reviews; I've preserved the reviewers' unique styles of punctuation and spelling. See also: on Joyce's Ulysses and Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress].
I bought this book for a friend in jail. Alas, he was unable to read it because the font was too small.
First of all, classiflying it as fiction is a mistake. Probably a good 60% of the book is non-fiction – chapter after chapter dedicated to every imaginable detail of the biology of the whale and every imaginable nuance of whaling.
Ray Bradbury, who wrote the screenplay for this novel, (a la Gregory Peck) couldn’t even finish the damn thing!
Moby Dick, was a horrible waiste of time. Along with its wordy paragraphs, it also talked about uninteresting issues. It is also to long, and you don’t hear of them encountering the whale until the end of the book.
I am quite the fan of stories which involve man eating sea creatures, such as Jaws. Moby Dick is nothing compared to such classics, I fear.
Moby Ick’s more like it.
It made for a smashing movie.
Throughout the book, you may read one chapter with some action only to be followed by 5 or 6 chapters of tangents that are not necessary to understand the story.
Honestly, Over 400 pages devoted to killing a whale because it ate your hand? Come on.
Those chapters about Ishmael sleeping with whatever his name was and Ishamel had such a good time with the other guy’s arm over him and leg over him that he didn’t know if he was straight or gay any more.
What is the whales motivation? You dont know.
I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow! Keep Moby Dick away from my bed!
i personally didn’t enjoy the philosophical or deep side of the book, i have read much much better books in that regard.
It is 540somepages of boring whaling details.
I think if you made it into a short comic strip, you would have liked it.
There is no suspense, and I find the idea of people hunting whales offensive. Offensive with a capital O.
No wonder Melville flopped as a writter.
OMG, this is tedious and torture to read.
If you like a story with nonessential information and an author that is entirely to verbose, then this book is for you.
I love literatur just as much as the next guy but we must face it 100 years or so ago American literature was reall weak and lagging from the rest of the world, perhaps now they’re starting to catch up with writers like Ann Rice and them.
It is hard to read. like work. Doubt he could get published today.
I HATE this book. Why? It’s BORING!
The only people who like this book are english teachers who derive a feeling of moral superiority from forcing others to read this incredibly bad novel.
If you want to read lots of meaningless whale trivia read the book.
Boy gets whale. Boy loses whale. Boy gets whale. Spawns yawns.
1. Prompted by Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson’s marvelous study of Moby-Dick, I took a fifth trip through Melville’s massive opus this past month.
2. Every time I read Moby-Dick it seems funnier and sadder. Richer. Thicker.
3. I cobbled together my reading over different media and spaces: I listened to William Hootkins‘ outstanding unabridged audiobook version, and then reread on my Kindle key passages I’d mentally underlined; I then checked those passages against the copy of Moby-Dick I annotated the hell out of in grad school.
4. I posted some of my favorite excerpts of Moby-Dick here on Biblioklept because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to write about the book—not really—that I wouldn’t be able to handle all of its language. (My riff on Olson’s book obsesses over Olson’s ability to write after Melville and Melville’s ability to write after Shakespeare).
5. Really, in posting so many fragments of Moby-Dick, I suppose that I’ve attempted to abrogate any kind of critical duty to describe the book under discussion in terms of its own language.
6. Point 5 is really a way of saying: Moby-Dick, like any sublime work of literature, is a self-defining, self-describing, and even self-deconstructing text.
7. Or, another way of making such a claim:
Let me (mis)appropriate Samuel Beckett’s description of Finnegans Wake and contend that the description fits Moby-Dick just as aptly:
Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something, it is that something itself.
8. So here circumnavigate back to my own recent reading and auditing of the book:
Hootkins’ audio recording would make a great starting point for anyone (unnecessarily) daunted by Melville’s big book. He performs the book, commanding his audience’s attention. He unpacks the humor that might otherwise hide from untuned 21st century ears; he communicates the book’s deep, profound sorrow. His Ishmael is perceptive, clever, generous. His Stubb, hilarious. His Ahab a strange philosophical terror.
After listening to Hootkins on my commute, I’d return to key passages on my Kindle, and then finally review the notes I wrote in the cheap hardback Signet edition I read in grad school.
But why bring this up?
9. I don’t know.
Maybe: Unpacking Moby-Dick is too hard, too much—would require its own book, a book that would cite the entirety of Melville’s book.
But discussing the book this way seems a disservice to potential readers; it’s as if we would cloak the book in a mystic veil.
10. If I have a point to all of this: Moby-Dick is wonderful, funny, moving, engaging; a genre-bender that tackles philosophy, history, science; an adventure tale; a psychological novel brimming with ideas, allusions—but one delivered in sonorous, poetic language. It’s good, great, grand. Read it, if you haven’t. Reread it.
11. So I’ve failed to even try to begin to attempt to pretend to describe the plot.
Here: Ishmael, depressed, suicidal perhaps, decides to go to sea. To go whaling.
He tries to measure the whale, and by measuring the whale, maybe measure the world. But this is not really possible, certainly not in language. Certainly not in first-person perspective.
In Chapter 86, “The Tail,” Ishmael tells us:
The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. … Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep. I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.
(I don’t suppose I need to remark that Melville here lets one mighty tail stand in for another mighty tale—a tale he cannot face).
12. “Call me Ishmael”: our protagonist hails us.
But these famous opening lines aren’t really the beginning of the book. First we have the section titled “Extracts,” and before that “Etymology.” The first entry on the etymology of the whale, from Hackluyt, warns us not to leave out “the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word.”
Whaling. Hailing. Wailing.
The whiteness of the whale.
The witness of the wail.
13. How, just how, does Ishmael witness? How does he manage to tell this story? Did I obsess over this in earlier readings? I don’t think so—I was too concerned with absorbing the what and the why of the story to closely attend the how of its telling.
14. The novel begins in standard first-person point-of-view territory, Ishmael guiding us through Manhattan, New Bedford, Nantucket—but by the time he’s boarded the Pequod and set out into the wide watery world, this first-person perspective transcends the limits of physics: Our narrator not only attends the private conversations of Ahab, his mates, his harpooners, his men—but also the very interior of those men, their minds, their dreams, their imaginations.
Is Ishmael a ghost?
15. And to return to Ahab for a moment: My god, what a voice! His infecting, addicting insanity. His agon with Moby Dick, with the sun, with himself.
16. And Starbuck: Starbuck comes across weaker and weaker each time I read the book. We’re to believe he’s a man of convictions, but he moves in half-measures. In his final moments he tries to match or feign or approximate Ahab’s insanity: tragicomedy.
17. And Stubb: Despite his cruelties, he may be my favorite character in the book.
18. While I’m riffing: Is there a novel more phallic in the American canon than Moby-Dick? All that sperm: All that life-force.
19. This is maybe what Moby-Dick is about: Life-force. The attempt to to resurrect and die and resurrect again. The coffin that serves as life-buoy. The life-line that connects men that might also be their death. A counterpane to counter pain. A condensation of oppositions.
A yarn, a rope, a series of knots, layered, layering, self-contextualizing.
An attempt to put into language what cannot be put into language.
20. Twenty points: Maybe too long for the “short riff” promised in the title, but also surely too short to even begin to start to approach to pretend to say something adequate about the novel. So a parting thought: Moby-Dick is better—richer, fuller, deeper—each time I read it, and I look forward to reading it again.
The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?—Because one did survive the wreck.
It so chanced, that after the Parsee’s disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab’s bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out of the rocking boat, was dropped astern. So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the halfspent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.
The untitled epilogue to Melville’s Moby-Dick, which I’ve always thought of by its epigraph from Job, “And I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee.”
I’ve enjoyed citing these extracts through this reading of Moby-Dick.
“I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego! let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-pointed prow,—death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! THUS, I give up the spear!”
From “The Chase—The Third Day,” Chapter 135 of Melville’s Moby-Dick. Ahab’s final monologue.
“D’ye see him?” cried Ahab; but the whale was not yet in sight.
“In his infallible wake, though; but follow that wake, that’s all. Helm there; steady, as thou goest, and hast been going. What a lovely day again! were it a new-made world, and made for a summer-house to the angels, and this morning the first of its throwing open to them, a fairer day could not dawn upon that world. Here’s food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; THAT’S tingling enough for mortal man! to think’s audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that. And yet, I’ve sometimes thought my brain was very calm—frozen calm, this old skull cracks so, like a glass in which the contents turned to ice, and shiver it. And still this hair is growing now; this moment growing, and heat must breed it; but no, it’s like that sort of common grass that will grow anywhere, between the earthy clefts of Greenland ice or in Vesuvius lava. How the wild winds blow it; they whip it about me as the torn shreds of split sails lash the tossed ship they cling to. A vile wind that has no doubt blown ere this through prison corridors and cells, and wards of hospitals, and ventilated them, and now comes blowing hither as innocent as fleeces. Out upon it!—it’s tainted. Were I the wind, I’d blow no more on such a wicked, miserable world. I’d crawl somewhere to a cave, and slink there. And yet, ’tis a noble and heroic thing, the wind! who ever conquered it? In every fight it has the last and bitterest blow. Run tilting at it, and you but run through it. Ha! a coward wind that strikes stark naked men, but will not stand to receive a single blow. Even Ahab is a braver thing—a nobler thing than THAT. Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents. There’s a most special, a most cunning, oh, a most malicious difference! And yet, I say again, and swear it now, that there’s something all glorious and gracious in the wind. These warm Trade Winds, at least, that in the clear heavens blow straight on, in strong and steadfast, vigorous mildness; and veer not from their mark, however the baser currents of the sea may turn and tack, and mightiest Mississippies of the land swift and swerve about, uncertain where to go at last. And by the eternal Poles! these same Trades that so directly blow my good ship on; these Trades, or something like them—something so unchangeable, and full as strong, blow my keeled soul along! To it! Aloft there! What d’ye see?”
From “The Chase—The Third Day,” Chapter 135 of Melville’s Moby-Dick.
“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths—Starbuck!”
But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.
From “The Symphony,” Chapter 132 of Melville’s Moby-Dick. The speaker is, of course, Ahab.