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Reading Nathaniel Philbrick
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.