Why Read Moby Dick?

By Daniel Herman

With apologies to the eminent author Nathaniel Philbrick, who has written a book of the same name, we thought we’d include a few short words about the book, and why it’s so great.

It may seem excessively optimistic (or, far worse, naïve) to expect a busy 21st-century individual to react favorably to a 600-page, 160-year-old book about a whale — let alone to ask her to successfully navigate its deep philosophical waters. So allow us to reintroduce this most established of American stories, and highlight aspects of the book too often overshadowed by the hoary tale of an old man and his whale.

Moby-Dick begins with the story of a troubled young schoolteacher who is having a hard time in life. Wanting to make a change, he decides to completely reinvent himself: a new name, a new job, a new perspective. He begins this journey by learning to look beyond appearances, and declares himself “bosom friends” with someone who looks completely different from him, from an impossibly different culture than his own. Before long, he has immersed himself in the fickleness and freedom of the “watery part of the world,” intuiting that by looking closely at what’s happening in his mind (as well as noticing how he is affected by the minds and actions of those around him), he will get beyond his frustrations and anxieties, and begin to access greater truths about his own life, and life in general.

Ishmael’s arrival on board the Pequod exposes him to a remarkable racial and ideological diversity. He considers Starbuck’s austere faith, Stubb’s blithe irreverence, and especially his “bosom friend” Queequeg’s tranquility, nobility and generosity. But of course, life on the ship it isn’t exactly a blissful utopian ideal. There are brutal realities of race, class, religion (and arguably sexual orientation) as well. The pugnacious third mate Flask poignantly stands on the shoulders of the massive African harpooneer Daggoo; the otherwise jovial Stubb cruelly beats and mocks the cook when his dinner doesn’t meet his specifications.

But of course the personality who truly dominates the book is Captain Ahab, whose descent into madness brings with it a terrifying volatility, and as we watch him disintegrate, we find a cautionary tale of how to avoid living one’s life. In Ahab, we see what happens to the man who is obsessed in his own righteousness, and consumed by hate for those who deviate from that vision: he is isolated, unable to connect to the people and things that surround him, haunted by nightmares, tortured by both destructive and self-destructive tendencies, impulsive, sad, remorseful, all kinds of unhappy things.

Admittedly, some people may struggle to find in the book any resonance with life in the twenty-first century. Of them, we ask: Is there perhaps something we can learn from a leader convinced his idea about God is correct, and intent on tearing down all those who disagree with that fanatical vision? Or from an angry young man who learns to look beyond appearances and declare himself “bosom friends” with someone from a culture vastly different from his own? Or from a group of men driven to extreme lengths chasing a dwindling supply of a finite natural resource?

Every reader will be moved by something different from this book: Ishmael’s pensive moments outside the chapel, contemplating the memorials of men forced into a dangerous profession, and taken too early from their loved ones; the harrowing chapter where Pip is left alone in the open ocean, and, finding himself so abandoned and alone, loses his mind; the fraught moments below deck when Starbuck “wrestles an angel,” struggling with remaining true to his faith, trying to decide whether he should shoot Captain Ahab.

Moby-Dick is truly our greatest American book, with potent lessons about race and racism, sexual identity, fate and destiny, environmental degradation, power and powerlessness, madness and obsession, faith and doubt, love and friendship, writing and imagination. (Just everything, really.) And Melville has much to teach us about coping with adversity, respecting ideological diversity, and living skillfully in a fickle, slippery world.

One final thought, regarding the book’s intimidating length: the book is divided into 135 chapters. Some are quite long; others are very short. But very few of them are connected by any real narrative thread, or connective tissue. Ishmael goes on wild tangents, in whatever direction his interest leads him (a chapter on rope here, a chapter on pre-determinism there…). So reading the book is not unlike surfing the web: you click a link; you’re led down any number of rabbit holes; all of a sudden you have 35 tabs open in your browser. Reading this book is like following along as Ishmael surfs the infinite Twitter feed of the open ocean. Reading just a few chapters before bed each night, a reader can easily be done in a few weeks. (Allow oneself to get caught up in the narrative a bit, and a month can quickly become a week, or a weekend.)