52 in 52 Week 10: Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick


Why Read Moby-Dick?I loved this book! I picked it up after reading a review by another member of 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge. I listened to THIS NPR interview with Robert Siegel and decided to read the book!   

This book met my expectations and beyond. It was so fascinating to read after having read Moby Dick in September 2004 and feeling much like Linda Holmes in the "I Will If You Will Book Club" who wrote after reading Moby-Dick, 

"Book club vice-president Marc Hirsh and I finished the book in June of that year and declared it a great lesson in 'how to pursue a pointless battle to its bitter, violent, inevitable end.' By which we meant, in part, reading the book." 

My joke has always been that it was 100 pages of plot and 500 pages of whaling encylopedia!  Reading Philbrick's book helped me understand the method behind Melville's madness.

I especially liked reading about the relationship between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. There is personal correspondence between the two that helps you understand that Hawthorne was the one who inspired Melville to add a plot to what was more a whaling encyclopedia.  Even though I didn't appreciate the whaling encyclopedia part, Philbrick convinced me it had value. 

Here is a bit of the transcript for the interview with the author:

SIEGEL: And first, the answer to the question of your title. This book runs hundreds of pages; life is short. Why read 'Moby-Dick'?
PHILBRICK: Read "Moby-Dick" because I think it's as close to being our American Bible as we have. It's just full of great wisdom. But it also is just an amazing read. The level of the language is like none other. And it's a book I keep dipping into on a regular basis - almost on a daily basis.
SIEGEL: As you describe it, Herman Melville was already a successful writer when he wrote a novel about whaling - that would be more of an adventure story, I guess, than what it turned into - at a time when Americans actually associated adventure more with the Western frontier than with the seas. And he scrapped this book, and he added all of the incredibly rich undertones and overtones that make it "Moby-Dick." Why? What happened?
PHILBRICK: Well, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne and read some of his stories, and it was Hawthorne's power of blackness that forever changed Melville. Melville realized what he wanted to do with this novel was entirely different from his original aim. And he completely reinvented the book and invented Ahab, and made it the classic it is today.
SIEGEL: Hawthorne is central here, but you also write about Melville's midlife encounter with the plays of Shakespeare, and his ambition to outdo Shakespeare.
PHILBRICK: Yeah. Well, Melville came to Shakespeare quite late, which I think proves it's best to come to books like "Moby-Dick" and to Shakespeare after we've had some life experience. And reading Shakespeare just infused Melville's language, brought it to a level that is just unapproachable. And this combination of meeting Hawthorne, but having Shakespeare as a new launching pad, made for an incredible combination that made "Moby-Dick" possible.
SIEGEL: And you observe that it was characters like Iago in "Othello," complex characters that Melville really engaged with when he read Shakespeare.
PHILBRICK: Yeah, and they're all over "Moby-Dick." But what Melville did is, he applied it to his own experiences whaling and also with what was going on in America, with the Civil War approaching. And so it made this incredible stew of influences that made it a book that really will be relevant in all times.
Isn't that funny about Shakespeare, especially since I have just read through so many of the plays that He mentions in this book! 


I totally agree with the bolded part of Philbrick's interview about coming to these works later in life, after life experiences. Here is the quote from the book regarding that:

Melville's example demonstrates the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after accumulated essential life experiences can make all the difference. For Melville, the timing could not have been better, and in the flyleaf of the last volume of his seven-volume set (large print because his eyes were going bad - Carol's addition) of Shakespeare's plays are notes written during the composition of Moby-Dick about Ahab, Pip, and other characters. (p.61)
Reading Moby-Dick, we are in the presence of a writer who spent several impressionable years on a whaleship, internalized everything he saw, and seven or so years later, after internalizing Shakespeare, Hawthorne, the Bible, and much more, found the voice and the method that enabled him to broadcast his youthful experiences into the future. And this, ultimately, is where the great, unmatched potency of Moby-Dick, the novel resides. It comes from an author who not only was there but possessed the capacious and impressionable soul required to appreciate the wonder of what he was seeing. (p. 70) 
I have heard so many people say of the classics, "Oh I read that in high school." (Followed by a look that says, "And I don't want to read it again.") I don't think many young people are ready to tackle classics without more life experiences and education that would help them grasp and understand.

Thanks to the post-Sputnik emphasis on math and science of the Southern California educational system in the 60's and 70's, I wasn't forced to read any classics others than The Great Gatsby and Siddhartha. And I think that was a good thing. I didn't start reading the classics until my late 30's when life experiences had allowed me to appreciate them. 

Still, I don't even think I was ready to read Moby-Dick at 45. I started reading through the Well-Educated Mind list in August of 2003 (see list of books HERE), and arrived at Moby-Dick in September 2004.  I don't think I had the educational background to really understand many of Melville's references. Now, that I have completed the list, I am sure I would understand more. 

I have such a new appreciation for Melville because of Philbrick!!!

Another quote about Melville's review of one of Hawthorne's story collections: 
At that time, Hawthorne enjoyed a reputation as a mild-mannered recluse penning well-crafted stories about New England's quaint colonial past. This, Melville insisted, was missing the point. Instead of a "harmless" stylist, Hawthorne was an unappreciated genius possessed by "this great power of blackness." Hidden beneath his stories' lapidarian surfaces were truth so profound and disturbing that they ranked with anything written in the English language.
Melville then turned his attention in the review to Shakespeare. "[I]t is those deep far-away things in him," Melville declared, "those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth, in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality; -- these are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare." Moreover, it was through his "dark characters," such as Hamlet, Lear, and Iago, that Shakespeare "craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint at them!" In writing about Hawthorne, Melville, via Shakespeare, was laying the groundwork for Ahab. (p. 44-45)
More on Hawthorne:
The other breakthrough associated with his invention of Ahab was something he clearly got from Hawthorne: a way to put artistic distance between himself and the very thing he most identified with, thus providing a way to write about the darkest and most frightening aspects of human experience. That was why he could write to Hawthorne, "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb." (p.48) 
Love his chapter on "Poetry" in the Moby-Dick. It is better to listen to the author read this excerpt from the book, but here is what he says:
PHILBRICK: Yeah. This is a passage from Chapter 51. It's called "The Spirit Spout," and picks up with the Pequod just south of St. Helena. 
(Reading) While gliding through these latter waves in that one serene and moonlit night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver and by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude. On such a silent night, a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea. 
SIEGEL: Wow, when you read that, I can imagine Melville reading it aloud as he was writing it. It sounds very much like elaborate, spoken prose. 
PHILBRICK: It is. And you know, it's iambic pentameter at times. And the level of the writing is truly poetic, and yet he's telling this epic story. And so the combination is really, one that was built for the ages.
I could go on and on about this great little book about a BIG book. This author is excellent. I kept reading quotes from the book to my husband last night, and he started reading it!





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