Book review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Is there any more to be said or written about the classics? Do I dare even try? Renowned academics and nerds from around the world have dissected novels like Moby Dick; or, the Whale for over a hundred years, so what more is there to say? I recall an attempt to read this novel about fifteen years ago but didn’t finish it, but last year while studying North American literature part I at UNED; we were expected to have read a few chapters and exerts from the novel and be prepared should it appear on the exam, which it didn’t, but my interest in the novel was reignited.

Moby Dick and Herman Melville are so lauded, so recognized, and have sustained such high status in world literature that I felt like I just had to take a crack at it again. Besides, there is an excellent audiobook narration on YouTube and reading along while a professional voice actor breathes dramatic life into the work makes all the difference. Before even hitting the halfway point, I knew I would finish. It is not just the book and the excellent narration but also Melville I find interesting as well.

What drove someone like Melville? It must have been extremely uncomfortable writing and revising a novel by candlelight while seated in uncomfortable chairs and dipping your quill pen in an ink well. Melville was a whale-ologist (if there is such a thing) and put his profound knowledge to the test with this novel; not only did he not receive much praise or success during his lifetime; the book was panned when it was published in 1851 and when he died, he was unaware that he would go down in history as one of the greatest men of American letters.

It seems the prose style of authors like Melville is a lost art. Writers today don’t use the same complex syntax and don’t possess the same mastery of mysterious verbs and a few words and phrases jumped out at me: bunghole, jerk him off, fagot of steel, hemp only can kill me. There are long passages that didn’t make much sense to me, and I lost the thread an a few occasions but the narrator, who doesn’t seem to be Ishmael anymore, goes on mystical rants, exposing us to his philosophy while taking readers for a ride around the epistemology of the sea. The similes and metaphors are as clever as anything we have seen from Shakespeare, I know, that’s a big statement, maybe Melville is not as lyrical, but his prose is up there with the master.

What Moby Dick is not, is postmodern of course. In fact, it doesn’t even make it into the modernist stratosphere, but I’d bet anything Theodore Roosevelt read this novel and loved it. It’s straight forward story telling with linear progression and the narrative voice is homodiegetic with a limited viewpoint into the thoughts of other characters.

Moby Dick is supposed to expose readers to more than just whale hunting but I’m not sure what that is. It’s not an easy novel to unwrap; there are long passages describing in great detail intricacies of sailing and whaling, life on the boat and of course Ahab’s obsession. But there is more under the surface of the text; I don’t know what that is, but it’s supposed to be there if you know how to find it.

In the end, this novel was quite a slog. I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it as much as enjoyed listening to it although I’m glad to have finally crossed it off my list. According to my Clockify account, it’s taken me about 20 hours to read/listen to this novel. I suppose that’s a reasonable amount of time but when I hear about great readers like Roosevelt who were able to devour one even two books per day, well I find that hard to believe.

The voice actor, who did a phenomenal job, brought a praiseworthy dramatic reading to the novel and if it hadn’t been for him, I doubt I would’ve finished. The actor is Anthony Heald. You might not recognize the name but if you’ve ever seen the classic The Silence of the Lambs; he played the role of Dr. Chilton; the creepy psychologist who flirts with Clarice Starling and ends up on Lecter’s dinner table.

Thanks Dr. Chilton.

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