I’d Rather be Swallowed by a Whale – My Review of Moby Dick

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![8]”

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.

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A Kindle and a Carol

     I received a Kindle for Christmas. Though an avid reader, I had resisted buying one for years because I thought I could never get used to reading a book off a 6 inch screen. It took me about two minutes from the time I opened the box till the time I was actually downloading books over my home wireless connection. It was incredibly easy to set up, and this made an immediate positive impression. Within a few minutes I was reading and enjoying a book (The Honorable Schoolboy by LeCarre), and after a few hours I can honestly say the strangeness of reading off a small electronic device had all but vanished.  I won’t say I prefer a Kindle ebook over a traditional paper book, but it does have the advantage of being lighter, easier to carry, and, most importantly, capable of downloading almost any book I want anytime I want – and more cheaply than a paper book.   
     One more point: In the past, I had read reviews of the Kindle on Amazon and even some of the positive ones had caused me to think twice about buying one. For example: several reviewers carried on about the occasional flash of the screen that occurs every so often when you are advancing pages, and I thought that this must be a hugely annoying problem. Take my word for it: it is a total non-issue. I can only assume that some reviewers delight in noticing every little nuance of a product.
     But I don’t want to turn this into a discussion of the Kindle. I want to talk about a book. With my Kindle comes the ability to download for free through the Kindle Store many books that have exceeded their copyright and are now in the public domain. Books like Moby Dick, The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and A Christmas Carol by Dickens, for example. If you download the totally free books, my understanding is that they are not Kindle friendly, which means you can’t do searches in them or move around chapters easily. But if you buy the 95 cent version of these books, someone has made the effort to format the books to work smoothly with all the Kindle functions. All of this is a way of saying that I downloaded and read a 95 cent Kindlized version of A Christmas Carol and was profoundly moved by the story. No wonder it still continues to be read (and turned into movies and plays) 168 years after it was written.
     A Christmas Carol was the very first Dickens book that I have ever read. I expected to be charmed but bored by its old, thick, and probably dry writing style. Wow, was I wrong! My initial impression was that it is so well written that it could have been the book that all ‘How to Write’ books were based on. In it could be found almost every advanced writing technique that I had ever studied. It was so sophisticated and yet readable that it made me wonder if the ‘how to’ books were telling the rules of writing or just simply, having studied Dickens, describing the things that Dickens did to weave his magic. His descriptions were imaginative, evocative, and vividly written. His characters were intelligently and intricately carved, so that their emotions and attitudes were plain, consistent, and in many cases, profound. And this entire story was crafted before the invention of the backspace key or even the typewriter!
     But what really impressed me was the overall effect of the story. It was short for a book, but, if anything, it’s brevity added to its power. I was emotionally moved by the story as millions have been moved before me. Most strangely, it captured for me, a person of the 21st century, exactly how I felt about Christmas. How could it have been written over a century and a half before I was born and before the full might of Hollywood and American retail imagery had fully imprinted their Christmas spin on my psyche? I couldn’t help but wonder if Dickens’ picture of Christmas had influenced those creative sources as well.
     My next week’s posting will be on my first serious experience with ‘writer’s block’. I will tell how it happened and how I’m trying to work my way out of it.
Best regards,
Jim
Umhlanga, South Africa
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