Moby Dick by Herman Melville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had no idea what i was getting into! All I knew was that this was the story of a mad captain hellbent on killing the white whale. I did wonder why it was such a big book with 135 chapters! Not so much a single narrative about Ahab and Moby Dick as an immersion course in the 19th century whaling industry, its practices, myths, and misconceptions, all interwoven with various stories, hung on the framework of Ahab and the great white whale. Of course, there are many subtexts, some of which I could pickup but many ran too deep and escaped me. Mostly I think my lack of biblical knowledge meant i missed out on many nuances of plot and motivators for various characters, not least Ahab.

I have several favorite chapters..

Chapter 32 Cetology – In which Melville describes the family tree Cetacea and how they are sub-classified. This is like reading a slow motion intellectual train wreck. At first one thinks this is merely tedious, then you realize it was written before the Origins of Species and it is not only tedious but also wrong. Then one tries to find something redeeming about the chapter, anything! In the end, for me, it highlighted just how overarching, and revolutionary Darwin’s achievements were. With one stroke Darwin caused this entire chapter of accumulated knowledge to become valueless except for the artistry of its construction.

Chapter 69 The Funeral – Melville describes the release of the whales remains after the oil has been harvested. He explains how other vessels spying the breakers around a dead whale would often mark the area as shallows or a reef. Thus for years afterward other vessels would avoid the spot. Melville suggests this is the whales ghost haunting the spot. This concept of a habit perpetuated long after the reason for it has gone is one I have come across many times but I’ve never heard it described so poetically. From now on it will be a whales ghost for me.

Chapter 92 Ambergris – I never knew…Yuck!

Chapter 119 The Candles – “Warmest climes but nurse the cruelest fangs” Now this is what I thought the book was about. Massive storms, men swearing oaths against nature. Ahab facing down the lightening.

and of course the last “Chase” chapters.

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