Friday, 21 July 2017

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I have to confess that my last two attempts to read works of classic literature have not gone that well. I've gotten bogged down, a little bored, and run out of time to push through and finish. So when the next classic turned up on one of my lists, I was a little worried. Was this going to be another chance to break a tooth on these huge tomes? At least we owned our copy of Moby Dick, I reasoned.

Turns out I needn't have worried. It did take me a while to read, but there really wasn't a time where I was bored, or felt like I needed to put it down and walk away, possibly for a few years. It's hard to say that Moby Dick is engrossing, but it's consistently interesting, and more than that, it felt like it rewarded thought about what Melville was trying to achieve.

We likely all know the story, of course, of Captain Ahab and his chase for the white whale, even if only through Futurama's venture into these pages while under Giant Brain Attack. What's remarkable is how few pages of the book that actually takes. I mean, it's always on Ahab's mind, but the actual whale only showed up on around page 650 of the 685 pages in my edition. The chase itself is packed into the last thirty pages or so, and most of the rest of the book is devoted to the practice of whaling.

I had been told about the intensive detail into whaling and this was, frankly, part of my worry that this book was going to be a slog.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that all that exhaustive detail of the history, taxonomy, and logistics of whales and whaling was never something that felt burdensome. It wasn't a fast moving story, but it was written in such a way that I was never bored. That, my friends, is an accomplishment.

While Futurama may be the most obvious pop culture nod, I came to this book having already read and loved China Mieville's marvelous Railsea, a take on Moby Dick, except on trains, and chasing the great white mole. Mieville's book is even more pointedly about obsession and what the objects of obsession come to symbolize for the various moling train captains.

It may be because of that, in the middle of some discussion of whales or some minute aspect of whaling, that I started to think about all this exhaustive detail, and why it's there. You could say Melville's just obsessed with whaling, but that misses the point - all that detail is not thrown in there without obvious author, it's being related by Ishmael, who cares passionately about whaling, and wants to make specific points about it, and dismiss others. That detail is his obsession, as much as Moby Dick is Captain Ahab's.

That the big, life-altering, sea-shaking, deadly obsession of Ahab's is juxtaposed with the quieter, but not less intense obsession of Ishmael's is what really ended up selling the book to me. When you read those sections and remain aware that they're a character telling you what he thinks is important about the world, and yet when you read it, you become aware that it's such a small segment, and yet all the world to him. It's fascinating.

That pulled me along until Moby Dick finally surfaced in those last 30 pages or so, and led the crew of the Pequod on a merry chase, and certain death. And I was delighted to find that of all the classics I've failed to finish recently (Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov), I found this one delightfully easy to get through.

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