Moby Dick – Discuss

I met the challenge, I finished reading MD a half hour before Book Group.  In my defense, I was reading in the two weeks available after a long vacation trip.  Everyone in Group finished the novel in similar style except one, and we gave her a pass because she’s working and very pregnant.  Everyone enjoyed the reading experience but there was an occasional struggle.  You can’t make it a quick read no matter how pressed for time.  It really is a most curious novel.  It’s undeniably long, and heavy with facts, and nothing much happens until the final few chapters.  It’s also engrossing, populated with memorable characters, full of striking imagery and language and entertaining digressions into philosophy and political commentary.  This is a book for endless discussion.

Moby Dick continually surprises the reader and defies convention.  Everyone knows the opening, right?  Call me Ishmael is among the most famous of opening lines.  Only it isn’t. There are pages before we read that sentence.  The mock-serious tone is set when we’re given an etymology of ‘whale’ by a late consumptive usher and extracts from literature compiled by a sub-sub librarian.  Only then do we arrive at Chapter One and meet our narrator.  You can say the line opens the story, but attaching this prelude material gives our expectations a little shake out of comfortable convention.

Ishmael is a terrific companion and guide on this journey.  He has many admirable qualities; he’s curious, adventurous, willing to accept people and situations as he finds them.  He is practical, interested in science and facts, and a self-educated independent thinker.  Alone and rolling unattached through life, he is the outsider/observer reporting and commenting on the comedy and grief of life.  I try all things; I achieve what I can.

And he’s so funny!  Why doesn’t anyone comment about how witty Ishmael is?  I loved listening to him talk.Coming to an inn for the night, with anxious grapnels I had sounded my pockets and only brought up a few pieces of silver.   Frightened that night, had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker than ever I bolted a dinner.  His philosophical reflections are marvelous and delightful in their unexpectedness.  When Tashtego falls into a sweet spermaceti coffin Ishmael muses How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?

Melville’s writing is richly descriptive.  A face showed a congruent small-pox had in all directions flowed over his face, and left it like the complicated ribbed bed of a torrent, when the rushing waters have been dried up.  Starbuck is a long, earnest man…flesh being as hard as twice baked biscuit…his thinness…merely the condensation of the man.  Moby Dick viewed: the appalling beauty of the vast milky mass, that, lit up by a horizontal spangling sun, shifted and glistened like a living opal in the blue morning sea.  Wonderful language that slows an appreciative reader’s pace like a sea anchor.

I’m trying to imagine where we – Ishmael and I – are as he tells the story of this fated voyage.  Possibly he is sitting alone and writing his recollections for later perusal.  But the narrative has the leisurely discursive quality of conversation and storytelling.  It has the pace of a voyage with long periods of near idleness and of simple repetitive work conducive to reflection or talk.  Perhaps I’m the new hand and he’s filling the days with instruction and tales.  I hope that he’s off the sea and snug in a comfortable sailor’s bar, spinning his tales for a mesmerized audience.




Author: abookwomansholiday

The perfect holiday for a lifelong reader is one with a stack of books and few distractions. Retiring after three decades as a bookseller, I look forward to reading my way through the stacks and shelves and lists of books waiting for me. This blog will be something of a grab bag or commonplace book of reviews, quotations, notes on the history of books, the contemporary book trade, and anything connected with books and language. Reading is a great pleasure. Thinking and talking about books multiplies and intensifies that pleasure.

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