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Moby Dick Paperback – November 20, 2017
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Capacious. That is the word that repeats again and again in my head. Moby-Dick is a vibrantly colored hot air balloon that keeps growing in size as I read it. First, Melville's subject is the sperm whale, the largest creature on earth. But we don't just learn about the sperm whale but about all whales. Then we learn about whaling and its nobility. Here is where it gets very interesting. We participate in whaling, its skill, equipment, courage, risks and economy AND about how it results in the gruesome destruction of the whale. We feel the horror inflicted on the whales and we feel the nobility of the activity that slaughters them. Melville doesn't allow us to avert our eyes either to the daring of whaling or to the viciousness of the slaughter. That is where the book inflates even more because he holds both perspectives equally which is a much larger place than if he had taken sides.
The book also foreshadows modernism by using a variety of narrative techniques; theater, pure narration, encyclopedic explanations and subjective interior monologues. Melville is constantly breaking up the narrative with omniscient recitations of fascinating information about his subject matter. And like Ulysses or the Waste Land, he piles on the reference to Shakespeare, the Greeks, Christianity and the Hebrew traditions.
There are many references with regard to Ahab and the Whale regarding evil and Satan. Yet Ahab has great respect and reverence for Moby Dick. Ahab himself knows he is obsessed and but can have great compassion like his feelings for the lowly addled Pip. So yes there is evil afoot in the book but it isn't the kind that that creates simple polar opposites. As Ahab describes Moby-Dick (has) `an inscrutable malice sinewing through it' that describe the book as well. There is evil and there is also goodness that coexists in the book making the reader feel that he has to take sides. If the reader resists this temptation he or she will experience the awe of a deep and ever expanding mystery.
This edition is beautiful: All edges of the textblock are gilt in mirror-bright gold; the cover is understated with an abstract illustration of the whale and a simple serif title. The book's dust jacket is colored a soft, inviting, powder-blue and that same color shades the cover boards and the silk ribbon marker. A floral pattern of oak leaves and acorns adorn the front-and-end pages. This same oak/acorn pattern is embossed on the front cloth board giving the book a very classic look.
This edition of Moby Dick is full, unabridged, and unexpurgated. There is an afterword by Nigel Cliff, a historian of maritime exploration. The text itself is laid out plainly (a plus) and the form factor of the book overall is very conducive to read in one hand (the book measures approximately 6"x4"x1.5"). They've chosen a serif font (probably Garamond or Times Roman) and the bright white pages make the smallish text highly readable (I'd say it's about 9-10 point font).
Overall, a lovely edition of Moby Dick; a treasure you'll pass along to a grandchild. Great work from MacMillan on bringing such a high quality edition to the public for the low price of ~$12.00 (depending on where you buy it: the MSRP printed on the jacket is $14.99).
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.]
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