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Book Review: Moby Dick

February 9, 2021

Call me Ismael

It’s perhaps the most famous opening line in all of literature. It ranks right up there with

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Moby Dick is considered one of the greatest works ever written. I read it.

I disagree.

I know how presumptuous that sounds. And I’ll never be an English professor. And I’m willing to admit, maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe, it is brilliant and I’m the one that isn’t.

Herman Melville is a brilliant writer. And that certainly shows in Moby Dick. His characters are complex and consistently interesting. The plot, has a wonderful pace that takes the reader on a wild rides and also leaves us at times stuck in the doldrums with the crew of the Pequod.

And the final conflict is everything you would expect. The great white whale and the man who has single-mindedly chased it around the world to wage literal hand-to-hand. . .well, hand-to-fin battle with it.

So, why do I think it’s overrated?

Melville is so interested in telling us how much he knows about whales that he spends way too much time telling us how much he knows about whales. The book is 822 pages long. Other than the bible and War and Peace, it’s the longest book I’ve ever read.

I actually own two copies of Moby Dick. The unabridged version and a “Junior Classics for Young Readers” version that comes in at an economical 178 pages.

After wading through Melville’s masterpiece, I went back and read the Junior Classics version. The story was there in both. Even some of the famous lines; from it’s opening line to Ahab’s iconic final curse.

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; form 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!

What the Junior Classics version doesn’t include is pages and pages and chapters and chapters on the different types of whales, whaling equipment, history of whales in literature and art. In other words, the boring parts that add nothing to the story.

What I Liked

I loved the story. The last 200 pages of the book are gripping. Literally a page turner. And while written in 1851, it gives us a great contemporary view of what life was like 170 years ago on a whaling ship. The characters are alive. I grieved for poor Starbuck. The First Mate was doomed by his very devoted nature to die the most tragic of all the deaths. And if you haven’t read the book, literally everybody dies. Everyone except Ismael who is left to tell the tale. I cared about all of them. And knowing what awaited them at the hands of the whale, but more accurately at the hands of Ahab’s madness evoked real emotion.

What I Didn’t

As I already mentioned, the book was much too long. This was actually the second time I tried to read it. The first time I couldn’t get past the chapter on various whale species. Also, at times, Melville switches from novel style to almost a screenwriter style where he lists the name of a character followed by their dialogue. After hundreds of pages it was jarring to suddenly be thrown into a different writing style.

What It Means To You

Billions of people have lived and died without reading or even hearing about Moby Dick. You’ll survive just fine if you never read Moby Dick. There are some excellent movies. In fact, while reading this I watched a three part mini-series starting Patrick Stewart as Ahab. It was excellent and tells the exciting story without bogging down with the 170 year old Wikipedia entries. Honestly? I can’t recommend it.

My Rating

2 out of 4 stars

Stay safe

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

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