on July 13, 2005
Unless you are a naval historian or a Melville scholar, you probably won't have a rewarding (or even comprehensible) time with Moby-Dick at this remove unless the edition you're using comes with a good set of footnotes. Here's the skinny on the various editions currently on shelves:
THESE HAVE FOOTNOTES ON THE PAGE ITSELF:
* Charles Feidelson, Jr.'s annotated edition. Unquestionably the most all-around useful edition of Moby-Dick ever printed. Generous and highly useful footnotes right on the page, covering lexical, allusional, and cross-referential items. Two disadvantages: you may at times feel put upon by Feidelson's interlarded interpretations, and the thing is totally out of print. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964. ISBN: 067260311X
* The "Norton critical" edition, edited by Parker and Hayford. The edition most widely employed by scholars. Stingier with the footnotes than Feidelson, but still a good second choice. Many useful essays at the end. The layout of the text is a bit hard on the eye, though. Make sure you get the SECOND edition, from 2001. ISBN: 0393972836
* The "Barnes and Noble Classics" edition. The footnotes for the most part are skimpy and confined to obscure vocabulary, not cultural and literary allusions. ISBN: 1-59308-018-2
THESE HAVE A FOOTNOTES SECTION IN THE BACK OF THE BOOK:
* The "Oxford World Classics" edition. About 11 pp. at the end. ISBN: 0-19-283385-5
* The "Modern Library" edition. About 13 pp. at the end. ISBN: 0-679-78327-X
* The "Penguin Classics" edition. About 15 pp. of notes at the end by Tom Quirk. ISBN: 0-14-24.3724-7 (This is their fancy hardbound version: see next item.)
* The "Penguin Classics" edition. About 15 pp. of notes at the end by Tom Quirk. ISBN: 0-14-03.9084-7 (This is their paperback edition, which looks totally different but is exactly the same as the previous entry. This claims to be the "definitive text," but any such claim is spurious -- cf. Hayford and Parker [v.s.] for a good discussion of why. Penguin previously came out with an identical-looking but much thicker version annotated by Harold Beaver: the notes for that edition were copious, but on the whole too fanciful and self-indulgent to be of much use.)
* The "Library of America" edition. (This is the one included in the same volume with "Redburn" and "White Jacket.") About 9 pp. of notes at the end. Unfortunately, they're a bit skimpy. You see, they're of the "go get it yourself" kind. For example, when Melville writes, "send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger," the footnotes -- the incidence of which is not marked in the running text -- merely says "Luke 16:24". In other words, you've got to look it up yourself. So I would characterize the footnotes as sparse and taciturn: they'll clue you in to the source, but as for the exact wording of something and its accumulated historical connotations, you've got to come up with those yourself. ISBN: 0-940450-09-7
THESE HAVE NO FOOTNOTES WHATSOEVER:
Why do publishers still print editions of Moby Dick without any footnotes or glossary whatsoever? Who can read it? What a waste of paper. I get so irritated! In any event, the following publishers have decided you'd prefer your white whale raw:
* The "Bantam Classic" edition. ISBN: 0-553-21311-3 Ain't got jack.
* The "Everyman's Library" edition. ISBN: 0-679-40559-3. Zilch.
* The "Penguin 150th Anniversary" edition. ISBN: 0-14-20.0008-6 Bupkiss! Handsome, though.
* The "Arion Press" edition. ISBN: 0-520-04354-5. Also annoyingly oversized.
And that's my bit of altruism for the week.
on January 18, 2001
Finishing "Moby Dick" goes up there with my greatest (and few) academic achievements. It was a gruelling read, but---in the end---completely worthwhile.
I've been reading it for 6 months. I started over the summer, during an abroad program in Oxford, and I remember sitting outside reading when one of the professors came over, saw what I was reading, and said: "It's a very strange book, isn't it?"
Looking back, that might be the best way to describe it. The blurb from D.H. Lawrence on the back cover agrees: Moby Dick "commands a stillness in the soul, an awe...[it is] one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world."
Now there are those who will say that the book's middle is unbearable---with its maddeningly detailed accounts of whaling. Part of me agrees. That was the hardest to get through. But, still, even the most dull subject offers Melville an opportunity to show off his writing chops. He's a fantastic writer---his text most resembles that of Shakespeare.
And, like one Shakespeare's characters, Melville sees all the world as a stage. Consider this beautiful passage from the first chapter:
"Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnifient parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces--though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment."
The end of "Moby Dick" informs the rest of the book, and in doing so makes rereading it inevitable. It is telling that Moby Dick doesn't appear until page 494. It is telling, because, the majority of the book is spent in anticipation---in fact, the whole book is anticipation. It's not unlike sex, actually---delaying gratification to a point of almost sublime anguish. What comes at the book's end, then, is mental, physical, and spiritual release (as well as fufillment).
The book leaves you with questions both large and small. I was actually most troubled with this question---What happened to Ishmael? No, we learn his fate at the book's end, but where was he throughout it? We all know how it starts---"Call me Ishmael"---and the book's first few chapters show him interacting with Queequeg and an innkeeper. But then we lose him onboard the Pequod---we never see him interact with anyone. No one ever addresses him. He seems to witness extremely private events---conferences in the Captain's quarters, conversations aboard multiple boats, and--what can only be his conjecture--the other characters' internal dialogue. Is he a phantom? What is he that he isn't? Somehow I think this question masks a much larger and more important one.
Try "Moby Dick." Actually, don't try it---read it. Work at it. Like lifting weights a bit heavier than you're used to, "Moby Dick" will strengthen your brain muscle. Don't believe those who hate it, they didn't read it. They didn't work at it. Be like Ishmael, who says: "I try all things; I achieve what I can." Or, more daringly, be like Ahab, whose ambition is his curse, but whose curse propels and writes the book itself.
on March 26, 1999
Last year I decided to expand my intellectual horizons by reading a series of American literary classics. Moby Dick was the first book on my list. It took me three months to finish this legendary story and, looking back on it now, I must say that it was worth every minute. To others who are considering this effort I say this: buttress your stamina and open your mind. This is not John Grisham or Tom Clancy. You will be reading high literature and you will be required to think. If you do so, Ishmael, Ahab and crew will open a window to some of mankind's most profound questions: Is it better to fight evil or promote virtue? Where is the line between honorable justice and blind vengeance? Do bad things happen because the universe is evil or just indifferent? The true pleasure to be derived from reading this book can be found by closing its pages every so often and reflecting on the questions that it will raise in your mind. A completely different experience than breezing through the latest best-seller, but much more rewarding.
Be aware that Moby Dick is many types of books in one. It is part adventure story, part sermon, part history of whaling, part encyclopedia of whale anatomy, part metaphysical allegory. Expect it to change periodically as you move through it, be receptive to each part, and don't try to compartmentalize it as any one particular type of work.
on December 28, 2010
I haven't finished reading the entire book, so I can't comment on the whole thing. But, there is at least one whole section omitted from this version: In the chapter "The Sermon", the hymn sung by the sailors is missing. While this omission does not necessarily detract from the story in a significant way, I like a "classic" such as this one to be complete.
on October 4, 2004
Forget everything you have heard or think you know about this book. What it decidedly is not is the story of a one-legged madman pursuing a whale for revenge.
Do not give this book to high-school students. Have them read THE AENEID, the prophet Isaiah, a few scenes of HAMLET, so that when they are forty and MOBY-DICK falls into their hands, they will recognize at least some of its underpinnings.
MOBY-DICK is as weird and far-ranging as Scripture, and stakes out the same terrority, namely heaven, hell, earth, mortality, joy, flesh, eternity, the soul. Ahab is no more mad than Edmund in KING LEAR: the real madman of MOBY-DICK is Melville himself. But he can only have been unhinged by an angel, so sweeping is the power of his imagination.
It's perverse to look on the shape and construction of MOBY-DICK as radical, innovative, foreshadowing such moderns as Joyce; it's like calling Revelations "innovative." Melville has no such aim and has no interest in technique. Indeed, he has few "literary" virtues. His language is dense, syntactically clumsy, exhausting, over-precise to the point there's no telling what precisely is being said. No human being could speak the dialogue that erupts from the mouths of its personages: it's like opera, or the dialogue in PARADISE LOST. It has a more urgent, essential motive than speech. It's the soul speaking.
MOBY-DICK is nothing so trivial as a literary experiment. It aims for wholeness, concreteness; it wants to be about everything, inside and out, and its eye is everywhere. Melville senses the sun and stars are part of his story, and equally so the bones and guts of a whale, so he makes them characters. When the convention of the first-person narrator becomes too restrictive, he lets Ishmael lapse, absorbing him and all of the Pequod into a single, unlocatable consciousness that seems to have existed before time.
The greatness of this book has nothing to do with its "qualities," but with its passion, its madness -- its genius. If ever a secular work was inspired, surely it was this one. It is beautiful not in the way books are, but as a created thing is, a horse or a river or a redwood. It makes little sense to me to call MOBY-DICK The Great American Novel, since it's hardly a novel at all; it is sui generis, acknowledging no standards but its own. If it must be a novel, then has the same standing in the canon of world literature as TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES: the supremest expression of the mind of a culture, disavowed by the culture itself.
As for this edition, it is at least handsomely printed and well bound. The foreward is profoundly irrelevant, and there are no notes, though I can't imagine any torrent of notes would be of much use in penetrating the mystery of this vision, prophecy, epic, call it what you will.
If you find yourself these days looking for reasons to be proud to be American, MOBY-DICK will give you one.
on June 19, 2005
Moby Dick is strictly for adults, which is not to say it's salacious or titillating (which, after all, is really just an appeal to that which is most adolescent in us). No, Moby Dick is a book for people who have experienced something of life, felt the painful disappointment of easy answers, smelled the fear of their own mortality and searched frantically for a solution to the puzzle of being alive. The fact that this book is often assigned to adolescents to read is a crime. It's like assigning Einstein's theory of relativity to a class of basketweavers. A little more respect, please. A person ought to be fairly well convinced they're going to die some day before reading Moby Dick - which is not to say he or she ought to be glum or fatalistic. Moby Dick is neither. It's surprisingly witty and ironic, sometimes even charming, but underneath runs a somber current that carries along with it formidable questions about what it means to be human, how we all suffer, even when we do the right things, and how a providential God can be easily confused with uncaring fate.
Melville is a master of ambiguity and nuance. His characters, who seem caricatures at first, gradually reveal a depth of complexity that has had scholars hard at work for years. From Queequeeg, the agreeable savage, to Starbuck (yes, folks, the coffee shop is named after someone), whose stalwart Protestantism is put to the test, and on to Ahab, the mad, raving, conflicted Captain, and Ishmael, the clever, pliable narrator, each character reveals a depth of personality that makes you feel you know them and wins your empathy, even as their ship, the Pequod, plunges on in pursuit its unlikely objective, the destruction of a singularly vindictive whale, Moby Dick.
Is Moby Dick some mad brute, an animal driven to distraction by the harassment of its predators? Or is it, as Ahab believes, an agent of the living God, bent on punishing the sinful pride of man, or worse - a mere mask behind which hides indifferent nature, spawned by the earth to reek mayhem and destruction to no apparent end? Ahab aims to find out and hijacks the loyalties of his crew in pursuit of his answer, distracting them from the official reason for their voyage, the acquisition of whale oil, an important commodity in the 1840's, setting them on a course that is sacrilege on more than one level.
Melville spends a lot of time examining the ins-and-outs of the whaling business, from the outfitting of a ship, to the process of capturing whales, to the intricacies of extracting whale oil and trying it, and much more; which can be rather off-putting to the causal reader. But be forewarned: Moby Dick is not for the casual reader. This is no Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye which will reward you with an amusing story even if you're not willing to dig deeper. If you intend to skim over Moby Dick, forget it. You will find it dull and unrewarding. But if you are willing to surrender some uninterrupted hours to the reading and some time, during the process for reflection, you will have one of the richest literary experiences of your life.
You will come away with a foundation of knowledge about something you probably never considered, much less cared about, how a whaling voyage in the 1840's played out, a fascinating glimpse into the trials and tribulations facing brave men bent on bringing home a vital energy source that lit homes and businesses in the years before crude oil was discovered and processed. And during the process you will be treated to Melville's philosophical musings, provoked by the processes themselves and relevant to the unfolding events, serving to underpin the thematic union of the book. And on top of it all you will get a rousing good sea story with some jaw dropping descriptive passages and a richly embroidered narrative, a ship world, peopled by an interesting cast of characters, and some food for thought that ought to stick in your teeth for some time.
Yet Moby Dick is not for the half-hearted, be they adolescents who are trying to skate by with the least effort, or simply those who look to literature as a distraction from life rather a mirror of it. But for those who are willing to set sail in more challenging waters, Melville's classic will not disappoint. It will take you into a coursing jet stream, exhilerating to navigate, both spiritually and intellectually.
on March 16, 2005
I find the prospect of reviewing this book quite daunting. Melville didn't write a typical novel in Moby Dick, even by his own standards. And reactions to the work are passionate and passionately divided, even to this day. Setting sail in this Melvillian squall is a difficult prospect, but despite my hesitations, I'm going to give it a go and say that, despite it's many technical flaws, Melville's book is the touchstone for American literature, much as Ives' music is the touchstone for American composition. Melville managed to find a voice that was distinctively "New World" and yet also universal enough to speak to the existential questions that have plagued humans since we first turned our heads to the sky to ask "Why".
Some things are truly subjective....such as book reactions. The issue with Melville in general is that he is a flawed genius. Moby Dick is not a perfect book in the sense than a Henry James novel might be perfect. It's not even as tight as Dostoevsky...and he's no model of literary tightness. I think when people have trouble with Moby Dick it's because that for them, the flaws outweigh the virtues....
The book is a stylistic hodgepodge, and this is probably exactly what makes it difficult for many readers. It starts out as a plain sailing yarn, much like Melville's earlier Typee or Redburn...or Richard Dana's Three Years Behind the Mast. But then it changes into a philosophical drama with many, many "informative" chapters that can at times read like a whaling primer rather than a novel. And the drama part is one part sea adventure and two parts Shakespeare....add to that a constantly changing philosophical view (God, as personified by Moby Dick and by other things, can be seen in the book as wholly good, Good but permitting evil, evil itself, good but locked in a battle with an equally powerful evil force, or finally completely indifferent to humans.)
I think for people who have trouble with the book, if Melville had taken just one of these tacts the book would be much easier to read and less littered with flaws. However....for me at least....I recognize those flaws and find the power in the book despite them...and perhaps even because of them. In a sense to me, Melville was using the Pequod as a symbol for all of the human world, and his radical stylistic inclusiveness IS actually exactly to the point of the book. Everything in humanity is included in the book, as all of human endeavor is essentially an existential quest for meaning in the face of an unknowable God (at least unknowable in any normal human sense)...and we bring everything, warts and all.
The character of Ahab can also be a stumbling block for readers. He is clearly monomaniacal, and for many, that singleminded desire for revenge obscures his greater humanity. The key to understanding Ahab though is to realize that he does indeed go through a change in the book. He begins as a man obsessed with revenge to the exclusion of human values....but he is also still capable of commanding love and respect from his crew. Even Starbuck, who most actively opposes Ahab, to some extent still loves the man and when given the opportunity to kill him and save the crew, Starbuck can't bring himself to do so. The tenderness in Ahab is shown in his relations to Pip, the addled cabin boy, but also peaks through briefly in the encounter with the Rachel, where Ahab almost gives into the pleas of the bereaved Captain who has lost his son to Moby Dick, and more fully in the marvelous "Symphony" chapter, where Ahab and Starbuck find a rare moment of communion in the beauty of nature and in their shared love of home and family. But despite all, Ahab can't let go of his quest to grapple with the bigger issue of good and evil that the whale has come to represent to him. It has become a compulsion with him and a fatal one.
One suggestion for reading this book is to read the Shakespearean chapters aloud. Much of the nuance in the characters of Starbuck, Ahab and Stubb is lost unless you bring the language to life. Melville's language is grand and was meant to be heard out loud. Another strategy is to view the John Huston film. Though the movie is deeply flawed, hearing Gregory Peck declaim Melville's lines helps to bring the character to more vivid life.
A final note on editions of this work. I have several and most of them are pretty equal in terms of the quality of the text. The Modern Library has the added benefit of Rockwell Kent's masterful woodcut illustrations. But to actually read the text I find the Bantam Mass Market edition is my favorite. The introductory note is excellent, and the book is stuffed with afterword material, including Melville's letters to Hawthorne while writing the book, contemporary press reviews of the work, and several excellent modern essays which help with understanding the greater issues behind this deeply moving and important work of American fiction.
on September 5, 2015
I'm one of the millions who suffered through this book in high school, taking the easy road and primarily reading the Cliff Notes/Monarch Notes to get through this book. Ironically, I ended up being an English major in college, primarily focusing on British literature, so I never had the chance to experience this book again in the classroom. As a lifelong reader, I decided to go back and revisit the classics to find out why they were so labeled. I've read the first 7 of Charles Dickens 14-15 novels. After getting used to Dickens style, you can read anything. In many ways I find Melville similar in his verbosity. Like Dickens, it takes awhile to get used to his flowery language. And in this mammoth novel, you get plenty of time to do just that.
But once you get used to his style of prose, Melville is quite good. Of course the sections on whale genealogy are a bit dry, but the basic plot of man against nature, good vs evil is thoroughly engaging. Now I know why Moby Dick is considered a classic. Don't be intimidated by the length of the novel. I read it in 3 days once I became comfortable with Melville's style. It's sad to think Melville never lived to see how popular this novel became.
I would also recommend the video adaptations of the novel, most notably the William Hurt and Patrick Stewart depictions. Always intriguing to see how different screenwriters will depict Queequeg, Pip, Starbuck and Flask as well as Ahab. A lot of artistic variations from the different screenwriters, but I enjoyed both of those productions. Life is short, and novels like Moby Dick are considered classics for a reason. Do yourself a favor and revisit Moby Dick.
on June 8, 2012
I'm not going to review Moby-Dick...it was deep and wonderful and demanding and difficult. I can't write a brief review for a novel of this scope.
So this review is for the St. Ignatius edition. This is a very well put together edition. As a English Grad student, I had some serious in-depth studying of this text. I am glad I spent the extra money and got this edition, rather than a bargain book. A great intro, a plethora of footnotes throughout the novel, and some very insightful criticism following the conclusion. This is a worthwhile addition for the scholar or the Americanist.
on April 14, 2003
I first read Moby Dick; or The Whale over thirty years ago and I didn't understand it. I thought I was reading a sea adventure, like Westward Ho! or Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym. In fact, it did start out like an adventure story but after twenty chapters or so, things began to get strange. I knew I was in deep water. It was rough, it seemed disjointed, there were lengthy passages that seemed like interruptions to the story, the language was odd and difficult, and often it was just downright bizarre. I plodded through it, some of it I liked, but I believe I was glad when it ended. I knew I was missing something and I understood that it was in me! It wasn't the book; it was manifestly a great book, but I hadn't the knowledge of literature or experience to understand it.
I read it again a few years later. I don't remember what I thought of it. The third time I read it, it was hilarious; parts of it made me laugh out loud! I was amazed at all the puns Melville used, and the crazy characters, and quirky dialog. The fourth or fifth reading, it was finally that adventure story I wanted in the first place. I've read Moby Dick more times than I've counted, more often than any other book. At some point I began to get the symbolism. Somewhere along the line I could see the structure. It's been funny, awesome, exciting, weird, religious, overwhelming and inspiring. It's made my hair stand on end...
Now, when I get near the end I slow down. I go back and reread the chapters about killing the whale, and cutting him up, and boiling him down. Or about the right whale's head versus the sperm whale's. I want to get to The Chase but I want to put it off. I draw Queequeg with his tattoos in the oval of a dollar bill. I take a flask with Starbuck and a Decanter with Flask. Listen to The Symphony and smell The Try-Works. Stubb's Supper on The Cabin Table is a noble dish, but what is a Gam? Heads or Tails, it's a Leg and Arm. I get my Bible and read about Rachel and Jonah. Ahab would Delight in that; he's a wonderful old man. For a Doubloon he'd play King Lear! What if Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of The Whale? Would Fedallah blind Ishmael with a harpoon, or would The Pequod weave flowers in The Virgin's hair?
Now I know. To say you understand Moby Dick is a lie. It is not a plain thing, but one of the knottiest of all. No one understands it. The best you can hope to do is come to terms with it. Grapple with it. Read it and read it and study the literature around it. Melville didn't understand it. He set out to write another didactic adventure/travelogue with some satire thrown in. He needed another success like Typee or Omoo. He needed some money. He wrote for five or six months and had it nearly finished. And then things began to get strange. A fire deep inside fret his mind like some cosmic boil and came to a head bursting words on the page like splashes of burning metal. He worked with the point of red-hot harpoon and spent a year forging his curious adventure into a bloody ride to hell and back. "...what in the world is equal to it?"
Moby Dick is a masterpiece of literature, the great American novel. Nothing else Melville wrote is even in the water with it, but Steinbeck can't touch it, and no giant's shoulders would let Faulkner wade near it. Melville, The pale Usher, warned the timid: "...don't you read it, ...it is by no means the sort of book for you. ...It is... of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships' cables and hausers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it. Warn all gentle fastidious people from so much as peeping into the book..." But I say if you've never read it, read it now. If you've read it before, read it again. Think Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Goethe, and The Bible. If you understand it, think again.