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Showing 1-10 of 38 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 60 reviews
VINE VOICEon October 20, 2011
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.
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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.]
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on March 3, 2017
In this commentary on Moby Dick, the author, Nathaniel Philbrick, a seafaring man himself, who has read M-D 'at least a dozen times,' shares in the course of 28 brief chapters (130 pages) his insights and perspectives on this magnificent novel.

But this is not simply a book about the novel; it is also, and rewardingly so, a book about Melville and his unusual, adventurous, somewhat unhappy, and periodically tragic life..

Philbrick has has read the entire Melville corpus, and has also read deeply the authors and books that most profoundly influenced Melville...the Bible, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (from whom he, Philbrick, was given his own first name).

From a religious perspective Philbrick presents Melville as a man who could neither believe nor disbelieve..."A generous agnostic,' if you will..."Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with an equal eye."

For Philbrick, though Ishmael is the teller of Melville's tale, the central and controlling figure in M-D is Ahab, about whom Philbrick's perspective is convincing...Of the books 28 chapters, at least 5 or 6 are focussed on the demonic Ahab, whose admixture of sanity and insanity is the cornerstone and epicenter of the entire novel...

I trust that Philbrick will add as immensely to your appreciation of M-D, as he did to mine.
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on September 20, 2015
Nathaniel Philbrick is a brilliant writer. His prose is flowing and clear, and he has chosen his excerpts from this towering work well. His enthusiasm for MOBY DICK is infectious and he has managed to overcome my hesitation about jumping into a long work of nineteenth century fiction. I have started reading MOBY DICK, and I will persevere!

So why four stars and not five? The final chapter of this wonderful book seemed vague and the concluding paragraphs felt like a contradiction to every valid point in the previous pages. It is almost as though the editor said to Philbrick: "Geez, you can't end the book on such a dark note. Put in a rainbow, or something." Melville was a complex, needy and troubled person, as this book recognizes. He was probably bipolar (although the word is never mentioned), and certainly had a strong streak of depression in his personality and life experiences. That Melville somehow clung to youthful dreams through the end of his life is just a little too improbable. That a scrap of paper found by Melville's family after his death is the evidence of such hope is very weak evidence indeed. That he managed to live out his life in obscurity after failing to achieve family harmony, financial success or artistic recognition does not suggest hope as much as resignation. Philbrick is certainly entitled to this opinion, although for me, as a reader of this tiny gem of a book, it seemed a falsified conclusion, unworthy of all of the sensitive and almost poetic content in the rest of the book.
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on December 22, 2016
Nathaniel Philbrick was named after New England author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Philbrick has written a book on the
Essex whaling ship which was destroyed by a whale. He has read Moby Dick at least twelve times considering it to be the greatest American novel ever written. Why so?
a. The book is vivid in describing reality and nineteenth century American life.
b. Ahab is the prototype of a modern dictator ruling a totalitarian state.
c. The book is poetic being influenced by the Bible, Shakespeare and the ancient Greek dramatists.
d. Ishmael is a fascinating first person narrator of the tale of the Pequod and the demoniacal captain Ahab.
e. The book is a big grab bag of a novel that is best read slowly and with attention.
f. The whale Moby Dick represents many different symbols to each person who reads the book.
This short book will guide you on your journey through the many and complex pages of an American Classic Moby Dick.
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on September 30, 2015
Philbrick's enthusiasm for Moby-Dick is infectious. I had finished my first unabridged read-through just before reading this volume. I enjoyed Moby-Dick (though some chapters are tedious), but once I finished through Philbrick's book, I did something I didn't expect and started reading Moby-Dick again. Philbrick is a really great author, and it makes sense that he would be a fan of Moby-Dick from his book on the inspiration for it (In the Heart of the Sea--recommended reading for any M-D fans).

His essays are not earth shattering revelations, but they will imbue you with a desire to dig deeper, reread, check out some commentaries, and enjoy the work a little more than viewing it as a chore.

While the list price is somewhat ridiculous for a collection of essays, the prices you can get for it used/discounted here help a great deal. Don't get me wrong, it's a great series of essays (though nothing truly shocking), but I wouldn't spend 30 dollars for the hardback. I won't review on the price--the content is quite good.
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on January 6, 2014
This is a good book for those who don't like "Moby-Dick" and those who do. Philbrick goes through the book pretty much chronologically, connecting bits of the book to Melville's life and times, as well as digging out some of the better philosophical meanings in Melville's book. He does this in a much more popular fashion than, say, someone like Harold Bloom. At times, Philbrick is pretty good, like when he "borrow[s] from the movie This Is Spinal Tap," saying "that Ahab dials his charisma to eleven" (p. 40). At other times, however, he is needlessly liberal as when he goes on a whiny rant against whale hunting, and even manages to work in a ham-fisted, flaccid swipe at petroleum and a non-sequitur reference to global warming (p. 94): "Ishmael might seem woefully naive, especially since the world's ice sheet has so dramatically diminished in recent years. On the other hand, the sperm whale population is now on the rebound, even as evidence continues to mount that her addiction to what replaced whale oil--petroleum--has contributed to global warming and sea level rise. In the years to come, the combination of climate change and population growth could have a devastating effect on the planet and, needless to say, on humanity." What whiny tripe. What whiny liberal tripe.
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on December 10, 2012
Two things got my attention about the book, "Why Read Moby Dick?" The first is the author's contention that Herman Melville's great novel is the "American Bible." The second is that Nathaniel Philbrick is a good writer. These two things made the book irresistible.

Is Moby Dick the American Bible? Philbrick maintains, "Contained in the pages of Moby Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country's ever contentious march into the future." Wow! So Philbrick is telling us that somehow Melville has delivered a work that contains the DNA of our country. Can we assume that means that in every new crisis or significant moment in our nation's history we can turn to this masterpiece, and masterpiece it is, to understand ourselves?

Alas, we will never know. Sadly, Philbrick never develops his grandiose thesis. He gives hints. The loudest hint is that the novel is an adumbration and guide to the bloody consequences and subsequent scar of slavery on the United States (Moby Dick was published in 1851). Again, we can wish it was, but Philbrick fails to develop the case, much less make the case. Philbrick reminds us that at the time of the publication of Moby Dick, "America was on the verge of a cataclysm." At the heart of the tension was slavery. But you will search in vain throughout the book for a convincing development of this thesis.

What you will find throughout the book is a retelling of the story. When the order arrived in the mail, I was surprised at how tiny the book was. It is a mere 127 pages. The binding is attractive, however, and puts on in mind of an old primer or perhaps a short book of the village's preacher's sermons or maybe the intention is have the look of a collection of love sonnets. The cover uses black and shiny red and white for, you guessed it, a sperm whale's tail up in the air as it dives under the waves and for the name of the novel, Moby Dick. Most of the pages are devoted not to telling why this book is such a mirror of America, but to retelling the plot, with occasional ruminations on the metaphor and analogy in different parts of the book. These can be quite a stretch, such as comparing "Ishmael's `insular Tahiti'" to "...a 1960s style fallout shelter; both are hideouts from `the horrors of half known life' radioactive or wet." Or that Captain Ahab's ship, the Pequod, is the "mythic incarnation of America," and in the chapter about the masthead, that the isolation there as one surveyed the waters for signs of whales were like the isolation of "New England gentleman who had once viewed the south from the safety of their own mastheads," and were now, like the whalers, "being drawn into slavery's pernicious vortex." Now why didn't I ever see that in reading the book?

My biggest disappointment with "Why Read Moby Dick" is how little Philbrick had to say about Melville's talk about religion, Christianity and use of the Bible. Melville's use of the Bible is prodigious. Philbrick skims over the surface of it. No one can deny the power and faith behind the story of Ishmael's visit to the Whaling Church in New Bedford. The pulpit is the prow of a ship, and into climbs the old preacher like weather beaten old ship's captain. Then Melville tells us "What could be more full of meaning? - for the pulpit is ever the world's foremost part, all the rest comes in the rear and the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God's quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds, Yes, the world's a ship on its passage out and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow." These are words worthy of inscription on the wall of any pastor's study (I am a protestant minister). Then Father Mapple launches into a sermon about, what else, Jonah. The sermon, penned of course by Melville, shows a remarkable understanding of the scriptures, demonstrated elsewhere in the book as well. Philbrick makes only cursory acknowledgement of Melville's use of the Bible for illustration and his fascinating ruminations about Christianity and world religions. Even in Philbrick's chapter, "Is There a Heaven?" he moves away from the book and answers that Melville yearns for a paradise of fame or friendship or freedom from his longing for a father who died when he was young. There is precious little about the book's grappling with matters of faith.

So skip the book? Not so fast!

Nathaniel Philbrick is a good writer. His books on the Mayflower and the wreck of the whale ship Essex (the Essex was stove in by a whale earlier in the nineteenth century and was thought to have inspired Melville to compose Moby Dick) are historical books that are "page turners" as well. Noteworthy about "Why Read Moby Dick?" are two things, Philbrick's lacing the work with biographical elements about Melville, which he integrates nicely. Thing two is how Philbrick narrates the Melville's friendship and relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. What makes the book worth the bother, however, is Philbrick's love of Melville's masterpiece. He is right that Melville's grand work is the apex of the American novel. It is brilliant. And anyone who loves it will like Philbrick's little book. It is a paean to Melville and mysterious whale.

When all is said and done, Philbrick is not to be criticized for not pinning down his thesis. Part of what makes Melville's novel great is the grandeur and sweep and elusiveness of its meaning. It haunts you. There is something in this strange book that is all too true. Just when you think you have it pinned down, it shifts from under your grasp and tantalizes you with still some other insight. Who is Moby Dick? What does the white whale signify? (Philbrick says nothing - "...I need to make something perfectly clear. The White Whale is not a symbol." Hm.) What is Ahab's obsession about? What is Ishmael all about in relation to the biblical Ishmael? Philbrick does not answer these questions, but if he could, his book might be titled, "Don't Bother Reading Moby Dick."
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on March 19, 2016
I tried numerous times to read Moby and only managed after I hit 60. I have no idea why that should be -- but I wish I'd read this before I started the slog. Philbrick comes at the task with a generalized -- i.e. non-academic -- passion, and does a lovely job of expressing his human appreciation for the work simply and without pretense. Good stuff, which might have made getting into the book easier had it been available when first I started.
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on February 13, 2014
This is a fine little volume that is great for a quick read that stimulates a great deal of thought. For many, Hermann Melville's Moby Dick is a challenging book. It is one of those books that many people believe they are supposed to read, but often do not get around to the task. There is no author more appropriate than Nathaniel Philbrick to tackle the subject of why Melville's greatest work remains relevant. In this short volume, Philbrick builds a strong case for Moby Dick being the one and only true Great American Novel. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to others who want to act on the long repressed thought of moving forward to read Melville's volume.
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