87 of 90 people found the following review helpful
Philbrick is expansive in his praise of Moby-Dick describing it variously as history, poetry, adventure story, parody, portrait of 1850's America, metaphysical blueprint and, finally, epic depiction of man's struggle against an uncaring universe. He lovingly refers to the book as a "magnificent mess" and as a "quirky and demanding ride" which he urges readers to take. Philbrick details the curious history of the book which had sold fewer than 4000 copies in the forty years prior to Melville's death in 1891, only to become subject of a reader resurgence after the first World War.
Melville's masterpiece, according to Philbrick, contains within its pages "nothing less than the genetic code of America." Because of this, the book becomes "newly important " as each new American crisis occurs. The "genetic code" in Moby Dick contains lessons in tolerance between cultures, compartmentalization of worldly and spiritual concerns, the labor theory of value, the impact of a harrowing occupations on the worker, perils of charismatic leadership, and the need for government to prevent angels from becoming sharks.
Philbrick is most effective in introducing the reader to the first anti-hero - Captain Ahab- and his fight to create meaning in a universe which can be seen as a vast practical joke on man. Nathaniel Hawthorne's emotional inspiration on Melville helped transform a more straightforward whaling story into a dive into the darkness. The white whale becomes a mask obscuring the "outrageous strength" and "inscrutable malice" of a hostile universe. Moby-Dick is nothing less than "evil personified and made practically assailable." Whether the whale is agent of darkness or its principal is unimportant, Ahab must strike a blow for man against him. The captain's metaphysical quest transforms him to obsessed and elemental hero: "They think me mad...but I am demoniac. I am madness maddened."
In a concise text that can be consumed in an evening, Philbrick may have achieved his goal of recruiting more readers to Moby-Dick. If so, this is an important accomplishment. He suggests that it is unnecessary to read the entire book if the alternative is to ignore it altogether because of its imposing length or its prolix manner. "The important thing is to spend some time with the novel. Even a sentence, a mere phrase will do." The rewards, as described by Philbrick, can be considerable.
39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2011
WHY READ MOBY-DICK? may be better titled "Why Re-Read Moby-Dick?" As students, all of us were subjected to what many consider the Great American Novel. My experience came in junior high school, and the passage of many decades does not dim the excruciating boredom I felt when reading Herman Melville's epic tome. The passing years exposed me to other Melville literature, specifically the novella "Billy Budd" and the short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener." At a used book sale several years ago, I came across a beautiful copy of MOBY-DICK. The edition contained stunning illustrations and leather binding. By this time, my children were reading it in their literature classes, and I was enticed to buy it. I decided that perhaps Melville and the great white whale deserved another chance. I was not disappointed.
Nathaniel Philbrick's historical studies have often been sea-related. IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, published in 2000, was the story of a Nantucket whaling ship that, on an expedition to the Pacific in 1820, was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale. The saga of the ship, The Essex, was believed to be the inspiration for Melville's novel, published in 1851. Philbrick's maritime history of the tragedy won a National Book Award. More than a dozen readings of MOBY-DICK inspired Philbrick's brief but thorough study of what makes Melville's classic so endearing. Along the way, he provides readers with an excellent complement to the epic novel. And after reading over 800 pages, an additional 127 cannot be too taxing.
In a series of 28 essays, Philbrick covers an extensive number of thought-provoking topics. Commencing with some brief introductory information, he notes that MOBY-DICK was far from an instant classic. The book was actually a flop when it was originally published. Indeed, in 1891 when Melville died, the book had sold a grand total of 3,715 copies. Not until post-World War I did it begin to garner accolades from a new generation of Americans. William Faulkner called it the one novel by another author that he wished he had written. In 1949, Ernest Hemingway told his publisher that Melville was one of the few authors he was still trying to beat. Philbrick notes that the novel grows on you. It is encyclopedic in nature and a repository of American history and culture.
The Pequod is the vessel that transports the characters who live in the pages of the novel. In Philbrick's mind, the ship is the mythic incarnation of America in the 1850s --- a country blessed by God and believing in the free enterprise yet still embracing signs of barbarity. From its wealthy owners to the exploited laborers, the crew embodies the nation. For Philbrick, it is the continued importance of numerous contemporary social and political issues that makes MOBY-DICK as vibrant today as it was when Melville initially put pen to paper.
While the continuing vitality of Melville's themes are essential, Philbrick also takes time to direct readers to the beautiful and poetic quality of Melville's writing. MOBY-DICK contains passages with vivid descriptions ranging from the sea to clam chowder. There is a great deal more packed into the few pages of Philbrick's tribute. But discussion of those observations is not his primary intent. Philbrick has a more important goal; he wants you to read MOBY-DICK. Take his advice, whether for the first, second or even 10th time.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2012
If you have a couple of hours and are looking for a pleasant read that can help you to appreciate one of the greatest books around, this is a more than worthy read. While I am only giving this one three stars, since it is really an "homage" of limited ambition, not a creative work in itself, each of those stars is well earned and this will be among my most glowing three star reviews.
Philbrick gives us an entry into Moby Dick that is personal and easily accessible, and so does Melville's book a great service. All too often, Moby Dick is read at too young an age*, an age where the wry, often sardonic and subtle humor is ill-appreciated and the references are difficult and obscure, and this has given the book a bad rap - a rap as a difficult, daunting work, one a reader must steel themselves for and endure. In reality, for those who enjoy the humor, and who have enough reading behind them so that a not-too-subtle dig at the philosopher Locke, mentioning him by name, or a joke about Jonah or Job, can bring a chuckle, this is a most readable and enjoyable book, and Philbrick gets that across. He demystifies the book.
Philbrick also gives you some tools to make the read easier. By pointing out some elements of Melville's humor, which is sometimes so dry you only spot it if you're looking for it, and some of Melville's approaches to writing and characterization, he sets up an easier reading of the book. He gives you tools to climb that mountain (and, again, the mountain really isn't as tall as it looks).
Philbrick's reading of the book will not be everyone's reading. Philbrick, like DH Lawrence before him, reads Moby Dick as deeply intertwined with the pre-Civil War American experience and particularly with slavery; I've never quite bought that reading, but am happy to acknowledge it is both an interesting reading and a supportable one, one worthy of more discussion. Philbrick is so open and easy going and approachable about his reading that this book almost feels like a start of that discussion. Reading Philbrick, I almost feel that he's pulled up a chair and some grog by me in a Nantucket Inn and we are off reading the great Moby together, and that is comforting. He's a good soul, a sailor himself, and a boon companion like Ishmael.
Thank you, Mr. Philbrick. On first hearing of your book, I was ready to dismiss it. Luckily, I picked it up, read it, and am now deep into my next read of Moby Dick and appreciating the companionship. You have done your job quite well.
* Harold Bloom says he first read it at age 9 and still sees Ahab as a hero - a reading I can only attribute to a too-early reading with limited comprehension having too lasting an influence.
34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2011
I recommend this book even though I found it profoundly disappointing.
What I liked about "Why Read Moby-Dick?" was the light-hearted, entertaining, and well-written tour of Melville's classic. Philbrick deftly removes the cobwebs from the book and illuminates many of its charms. Those who are interested in the sea, whales, coastal Massachusetts, nineteenth century America, and the idiosyncracies and obsessions of Herman Melville will find much to enjoy both in "Why Read..." and in the novel itself.
For many, including myself, those are enough reasons to read "Moby-Dick." What disappoints me is that when I read the title "Why Read Moby-Dick?", what I *hear* is "What Makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel Ever Written?" Had Philbrick called his book "28 Views of Moby-Dick" I would have been more satisfied, though I might not have bought the book in the first place. Moreover Philbrook makes that claim about the greatness of "Moby-Dick" on page 2, and I think he wants us to hear the bigger question even if he never quite poses it.
Some of Philbrick's more grandiose claims for "Moby-Dick" are not convincing. He argues that the Pequod chasing the whale represents America lurching towards the Civil War. This ignores the vast difference between a ship under the absolute authority of an obsessed, vindictive man and a democratic society struggling with a vast sin embedded in the foundations of its economy. Philbrick reads Melville's spiritual struggles into the novel but doesn't show much correspondence between the author's questions and the substance of the novel.
One thing that always bothered me about "Moby-Dick" was the strange relationship between the characters and the action. In some ways the first part of the book, which is about the narrator Ishmael being lost on land and encountering the cannibal Queequeg, is more engaging than the more famous nautical parts. While at sea, Ishmael and Queequeg are mostly bystanders in a story in which Ahab, the Pequod, and the whales are the main characters. Ahab himself is so defined by his rage against the whale that it's hard to feel any connection with him or to be very moved by his self-destruction. There's something very important and enlightening that critics and English teachers have seen in "Moby-Dick" for the last century or so, but after reading "Why Read Moby-Dick?" I still don't understand what it is.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2012
If one is to judge Nathaniel Philbrick's little book on its own terms, I am proof positive that the author succeeded in doing what he set out to do: "getting [me], yes [ME] to read. . . Moby-Dick." I purchased and began to read the splendid 2001 Penguin trade paperback edition (with Rockwell Kent's famous illustration of the great White Whale on the cover) the afternoon after I read Philbrick. The first surprise: the introduction is by none other than Nathaniel Philbrick. By then I was thoroughly convinced that Philbrick is to Melville, albeit five generations late, what Boswell is to Johnson. Melville could not be better served.
Philbrick's book is an easy-to-read, altogether satisfying, and thoroughly authoritative treatment of "Moby-Dick Or, The Whale." I am rereading Philbrick as I read Melville to great benefit. Not only does Philbrick place the writing of the book in its historical context, the grim years of our country's march up to the Civil War, his knowledge of the whaling era, from its nuts and bolts to its social context, makes it possible for the "Moby-Dick" reader to appreciate and follow Melville's extraordinarily detailed account of life on a whaling ship.
And what a writer the 30-year old Melville was. If there is a better novel in English, I am not aware of it. Is it the best American novel ever? Philbrick thinks so. And he won't get an argument from me.
End note. Every year, in January, The New Bedford (MA) Whaling Museum sponsors a marathon reading of "Moby-Dick" It's the in thing for Melville enthusiasts who come from all around the world to take part. Details of the 2013 event on the occasion of the 161st anniversary of the publication of the book will be posted by the Museum later this year. See you there.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
I bought this book before teaching the novel in hopes that it would give me some pointers about how to get my students more interested in the novel -- or at least, how to make them not *fear* the novel. I was frustrated in both of these goals: I found the book to be "self-selecting" in the sense that, well, those who buy it are probably people just like me, or just like Nathaniel Philbrick: we both want people to like and appreciate Moby-Dick for various reasons. Philbrick's work "preaches to the choir" in that sense. In another sense, I found the book to be absurdly short -- each "chapter" is nothing more than a few pages -- even on a kindle -- and these basically outline the plot: Ishmael does this, then he has some great chowder ... then he does this. To me, that's not great preparation -- nor impetus -- for reading Melville's masterpiece.
In the end, I told my students that Moby-Dick (or its English version, The Whale) was very critically reviewed when it was first published: nearly all of Melville's contemporaries disliked it for various reasons, and it marked a significant downturn in Melville's professional career. Yet now, it's considered to be the greatest work of American literature, if not the greatest novel in English. To ask *why* people felt as they did in the 1850s, and why they feel as they do now -- that alone might be reason enough to read Moby Dick.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
When I told a friend of my intention to re-read "Moby-Dick" after thirty years, he suggested that I read this book. Furthermore, he urged me to read it BEFORE re-reading "Moby-Dick". I just did so . . . or at least parts of it, for I soon recognized that reading other parts would lessen the pleasure of reading the novel for myself (even though I had already read it in the distant past). Thus, I don't think my friend's advice was good advice.
Writing introductions to classic works of fiction is a delicate and tricky proposition. A good introduction provides context that helps the reader understand "where the author was coming from". A good introduction sensitizes the reader to look out for certain concerns or themes. A good introduction sometimes can even prevent confusion from enveloping the reader. But an introduction, to be good, should not reveal too much of the story or too much about how the author goes about telling that story; rather, it should leave to the reader the pleasures -- the excitement even -- of personal discovery.
WHY READ MOBY-DICK? tells too much of the story to be a good introduction. Most of the book would be more appropriate as an afterword, and indeed, I am sure that reading it AFTER having read Melville's masterpiece would enhance almost every reader's understanding of the novel. Whether it is the very best book on "Moby-Dick" is beyond my competence. In its favor, I can say that Philbrick certainly knows his subject. He claims to have read "Moby-Dick" at least a dozen times, and he wrote an entire book -- "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" -- that not only was about whaling but more specifically was about an incident that greatly influenced Melville in the writing of "Moby-Dick". Plus, Philbrick writes in a congenial, non-academic fashion. At times his prose is a little flighty for me, but that is not a major criticism.
One of Philbrick's points, though, certainly is worth underscoring BEFORE anyone reads the novel. There is a cottage industry out there in Academia that seemingly exists solely to explain the symbolism of classic works of literature to students and non-academic readers, and "Moby-Dick" is one of its favorite and most fertile subjects. Nathaniel Philbrick, however, is not swallowing what those academics are dishing out: "I need to make something perfectly clear. The White Whale is not a symbol. He is as real as you or I. He has a crooked jaw, a humped back, and a wiggle-waggle when he's really moving fast. He is a thing of blubber, blood, muscle, and bone--a creation of the natural world that transcends any fiction. So forget about trying to figure out what the White Whale signifies. * * * In the end he is just a huge, battle-scarred albino sperm whale, and that is more than enough."
[Addendum (9 Sept. 2014): Yesterday I finished re-reading "Moby-Dick". Today I skimmed over WHY READ MOBY-DICK? Having done so, I will categorically state that the greater part of it is more meaningful if read AFTER rather than BEFORE. Today I also read "Call Me Ishmael" by Charles Olson, which is often touted as the best work of literary criticism concerning "Moby-Dick". I, however, would recommend WHY READ MOBY-DICK? over it.]
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2012
Why indeed after reading this marvelous synopsis and deep review? Well, because it is written by Nathaniel Philbrick for one eminently important reason, and for another, only such a skillful craftsman could make you realize just how much you had missed on your previous readings.
I for one had missed the sly wit and never realized what hardships Herman Melville endured in crafting this intimidatingly heavy and so very long work. Philbrick makes the point that most of us read the book when really too young to fully understand its deeper meanings, or really enjoy the extraordinary characters Melville creates. In fact I had reread the book only a decade or so ago and still did not discover all the symbols and delights that Philbrick's book now reveals.
This almost evangelic plea from such a great writer - a seaman himself - just might make others reread and then more thoroughly enjoy what this author claims is almost "our American Bible".
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2012
This hi-lights the great passages found in the novel by Hermann Melville. And what a unique novel it is - there is no other story quite like it. As Mr. Philbrick suggests there are several stories or themes or myths interwoven within it - all told with an inspiring realism. All at the same time, the book is intense, tangible and magic. Melville has an uncanny ability to "flip the coin" - dwell on something from one perspective and examine it from an entirely different viewpoint. If there is any book (to paraphrase Nietzsche) that stares into the abyss with a mirror, it is this one.
I don't agree with all the author expounds on. He states that "Moby Dick is not a symbol" - well I feel the white whale is something along those lines, but what exactly I can't say. As D.H. Lawrence suggested in his review in "Studies of Classic American Literature" Melville himself could not know entirely what he was writing of. Lawrence's "White Whale" is one of the most enthusiastic reviews of Moby Dick.
One of my favourite lines from Philbrick's book (page 70): "we are in the presence of a writer who spent several impressionable years on a whaleship, internalized everything he saw, and seven or so years later... found the voice and the method that enabled him to broadcast his youthful experiences. And this, ultimately, is where the great unmatched potency of Moby Dick, the novel resides. It comes from an author who, not only was there but possessed the capacious and impressionable soul required to appreciate the wonder of what he was seeing."
Mr. Philbrick's nicely made book makes me desire, once again, to re-read and appreciate the wonders of Moby Dick.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2012
I decided a few years back to read or reread some of the classics. This book was a smooth and interesting prelude to reading Moby Dick. It opened it up and made reading the novel much more interesting.