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The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea (P.S.) Paperback – Illustrated, February 8, 2011
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“[Hoare’s] work is rigorous, something every serious student of whales--and, more widely conceived, of the natural world--will want to have at hand.” (Washington Post)
“Hoare is a splendid writer and a beguiling guide. I found the spell (he) casts powerful and difficult to shake.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
“You don’t have to love Moby Dick to love this book. But if you do, THE WHALE is probably one of the most sublime reading experiences you’ll have this year.” (NPR's All Things Considered)
“A love letter to the ‘largest, loudest, oldest’ mammal ever to have existed, Brit biographer Hoare’s book romps through science, history and literature to chronicle his obsession with the mighty whale. Salted with astounding facts (the calls of blue whales were one mistaken for earthquakes), this is an exhilarating valentine.” (People)
“Philip Hoare’s THE WHALE is everything you want from a book. It is unpredictable and amusing and informative and original, cavorting between biology, history, travel writing, and memoir with an engaging sense of the subject’s charisma. And the book is even handsome.” (Mark Kurlansky, author of SALT and COD)
“This singular, magnificent book inspires both awe and shame―awe of the whales, shame of the human species that has tried to destroy them. In the end, Hoare’s virtuosic sympathy for his subject makes you believe in the better angels of our nature.” (Alex Ross, bestselling author of THE REST IS NOISE)
“Philip Hoare’s writing is quite untrammelled by convention and opens up astonishing views at every turn.” (W.G. Sebald)
“A wonderful read!... Hoare magnificently weaves together his own experiences with stories about literary giants whose writings were inspired by whales―Melville, Hawthone, and Thoreau―and he captures the utter beauty, size, and power of the whale.” (Lynne Cox, author of GRAYSON)
“A love letter to the ‘largest, loudest, oldest’ mammal ever to have existed....Salted with astounding facts...this is an exhilarating valentine.” (People)
From the Back Cover
From his childhood fascination with the gigantic Natural History Museum model of a blue whale, to his abiding love of Moby-Dick, to his adult encounters with the living animals in the Atlantic Ocean, the acclaimed writer Philip Hoare has been obsessed with whales. The Whale is his unforgettable and moving attempt to explain why these strange and beautiful animals exert such a powerful hold on our imagination.
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The author gets his focus every once in a while - but, then, wanders all over the place.
I'm setting it aside and moving on to other books.
The great thing about this book is that it also seamlessly blends in so many strands of thought, such as the love and awe of the sea, of ships and sailors, of the fishing industry, of American and World history and always in the background is Moby Dick, Ishmael, Melville, Captain Ahab, and other iconic characters and locations. I have never read the Moby Dick, but you don't have to if you have any appreciation for any the world of the sea.
"The Whale" is NOT a scientific treatise on whales yet there are enough facts and details about whales to satisfy just about any level of whale enthusiast and the many illustrations are just an added bonus.
Philip Hoare deeply admires and respects whales and perhaps is even obsessed with them. It is this passion for his subject that gives the book its "hook" as it literally grabs you and pulls you along for the ride.
Hoare tries very hard to seperate fact from fiction as it pertains to our knowledge of whales. He uses Herman Melville's classic "Moby Dick" as a stepping stone to do this. By referencing passages from the book as well as other historical journals and events that Melville might have used to source his story Hoare provides a dramatic history of the whale, the whaling industry and the tenuous relationship that whales and men have had over the past 400+ years! This provides some of the best and most riveting writing in the book. "You are there" as a sailor yells "there she blows" and the crew goes into action to chase and catch the whale.
But throughout Hoare provides specific and fascinating details about each species of whale that he introduces: from Narwhals, Belugas, Bowheads to the grandaddy of them all... the Sperm whale! Hoare tells of why whales were so in demand during the 18th and 19th century and why men would travel to the four corners of the earth risking death to catch them and bring home the spoils while he also tells of the naturalists and the scientists who made it their life's work to go on expeditions to study whales and their world.
Hoare takes us into the 20th century and the almost indiscriminate slaughter of whales to again satisfy the need for their by products... one of which was as a base ingredient for the manufacture of nitro glycerine during the world wars!
For a man who as a child feared the sea and would not step anywhere near the waters edge... Philip Hoare has become a champion of Whales and our understanding of them. This book is a tremendous tribute to that giant of the- THE WHALE!
The structure of the book is quite intricate, with different subjects often intertwined, and the same subject sometimes scattered along different parts of the book, what I found sometimes annoying. Mr. Hoare, in addition to cetaceans, is obsessed with Melville's masterpiece; Ishmael is a constant companion, quoted often to illustrate the book's meanderings through whales' biology, anatomy, behavior and unhappy interplay with mankind. Sperm whales are, as would be expected, looked at in more detail. Even then a lot is left unexplained; for obvious reasons leviathans are not easily observed in their natural environment and most of our knowledge about them comes merely from the observation of corpses. Whales in general are mysterious beasts, but sperm whales even more so: the largest toothed animals, mammals' ablest divers, hunters of squids of unfathomable size, owners of surreptitious echolocation powers, and so on.
Mr. Hoare being a biographer, a short one of Herman Melville is provided, revolving around Moby Dick, of course. It goes through his seafaring experience in the Acushnet and the several literary works derived from it, his acquaintance with Hawthorne - to whom Moby Dick is dedicated - and their friendship up to Melville's death.
The history of modern whaling is covered more extensively than whales themselves. Focusing mainly on America and Britain, whaling industry is described since its craddle in Nantucket in the 17th century. So is the evolution of the techniques used to hunt, process and conserve their prey. It's a fascinating and sad history, in which the astonishing array of uses devised along the centuries for cetaceans' carcasses are described - from the pre-electricity need of oil for ilumination up to the use of spermaceti-derived lubricants in spaceships. Chapters relating the slaughtering along the 20th century, with the use of the modern weaponry devised to this end - explosive harpoons, huge factory-ships, helicopters and airplanes to spot the catch among them - are particularly nauseating. The saddest part of it is that the killing only resumed when the cetacean population had been depleted to a level that turned its exploitation economically unviable. According to a scientist quoted in the book, "Conservation had failed mainly because whales belonged to no one and it was no one's direct interest to look after them."
I think that some editing, reducing descriptions of whaling museums and stranded whales, for example, would benefit "The Whale". The narrative of Thoreau's contacts with whales also seems irrelevant in the book's context. I lacked, on the other hand, a more substantial approach to pre-modern whaling.
If you are a Mody Dick fan, I highly recommend this book. If your interest lies only in flesh-and-bone whales though, not so much so.