Normally, when someone tells me they didn’t appreciate a classic book or a classic work of art, I tell them: “The book (or painting) is an established work of genius that has survived the test of time. The book is not on trial here, but you are. The very soul of our culture is reaching out to you and asking: Are you a deep and thoughtful person, or are you a brainless dodo?” However, when it comes to Melville’s 1851 ‘classic’ Moby Dick, I may have to revise my response. Gads, I didn’t like that book!
I started reading Moby Dick when I was twenty-five. I am now sixty-two and just finished it. And still I found it a tough slog! At twenty-five I whipped and beat myself into an intellectual Bataan Death March to within thirty pages of the end and then let the open book simply fall through my fingers to the floor. I simply couldn’t take it anymore even though the book was supposedly reaching its climax – the revenge of the great white whale, the death of Ahab, and the destruction of the Pequod. But, I eventually persevered on and finished the book on my Kindle just last night.
For those who don’t know, Moby Dick was based on two actual events: the sinking by a whale of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex in 1820 off the coast of South America, and a very angry albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick that was killed in the late 1830s. Apparently, the whale had twenty harpoons stuck in him and attacked many ships in his day. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:
“This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature… a singular consequence had resulted – he was white as wool!”
I like the way Wikipedia described it. Why couldn’t Melville write that way? Instead, this is how he writes:
“And yet, I’ve sometimes thought my brain was very calm – frozen calm, this old skull cracks so, like a glass in which the contents turn to ice, and shiver it. And still this hair is growing now; this moment growing, and heat must breed it; but no, it’s like that sort of common grass that will grow anywhere between the earthy clefts of Greenland ice or in Vesuvius lava.”
I rest my case.
Now, for those of you who who care, here are a few Moby Dick facts you probably didn’t know:
1. Ahab didn’t lose his leg from Moby Dick. He pretends he did, but he really didn’t. Starbuck, his chief mate, knows this, and buried deep, deep in the book is a little exchange between the two that goes like this: “Captain Ahab, I have heard of Moby Dick—but it was not Moby Dick that took off thy leg?” Captain Ahab replies, “Who told thee that?”
2. Unlike the Gregory Peck movie, it was not Captain Ahab that got dangled in the harpoon lines around Moby Dick and was carried away to appear later lashed to the great white whale, it was Fedallah, one of the harpooners.
3. And finally, yes, Khan was quoting Ahab in Star Trek Two when he said, “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee…”
Okay, those last were good lines, but not good enough to make me like the book. Still, in fairness, maybe I’m a dodo.