Later today, I’m getting on an Icelandair flight to Reykjiavik in one of my family’s more impulsive decisions to take a weekend trip to Iceland. While there, we’ll probably stop at the whale museum on the harbor because after reading Moby Dick my sister and I are a bit obsessed with whales. I was reading it over winter break, and looked out onto the great wide Floridian ocean with tears of awe in my eyes. The whaling life consisted of four years on a boat, killing whales, risking your life daily? Moby Dick is a book, sure, but people did that! That’s a huge part of the history of civilization (whales = candles) that we’ve just collectively seemed to forget about. Probably because it’s brutal. In Iceland, you can see whales from the harbor, but I’m sure none of them will be white.
But this post isn’t really about whaling. It’s about Moby Dick, and why you should read it. I mean it. I don’t care if you only read presidential biographies, books about cats, self-help and IKEA manuals, or Stephen King novels. Read Moby Dick. It should be the book everyone reads.
When I tell people to read Moby Dick I’m usually met with a dismissive shake of the head and a wry, regretful smile. People concede that they’re sure it’s a good book, but it’s not at the top of their list. I’ll admit that Melville’s novel is a tough sell: why read a 700-page book about whales and madmen when there are other, easier books with satisfying answers and neat endings?
I asked myself that before I finally came to the book last December and was drawn in to its whirling, maddening, and playful brilliance. It is a book unlike any other one I have read, bursting with dramatic action, digressions, philosophical meditations, unforgettable characters, and astonishing prose. Melville delights in
language and in creating characters pushed to real extremes of love, terror, and obsession, all in the isolated environment of a whaling ship away from land for years at a time. While Moby Dick may have a chapter dedicated to cetacean classification, the book itself defies classification. The reason everyone should read Moby Dick is because it is not the book they think it is—it’s not a stuffy classic, but rather a novel that pushes people to think, and think hard, while enjoying themselves. I would love to see a large number of people come to this book because I believe that, like all books, Moby Dick is best understood through the conversations it provokes. People would understand more about this “whale” of a book by seeing what parts moved them and their peers, and which sentences go echoing through their minds long after the book is finished.
Plus reading Moby Dick is like joining a fandom. You’ll see that we’re everywhere, people just grappling with a book with no straight edges and teeming with mystery and fun (kinda like life???) Take this example: a professor from my college giving a damn good reasons to read Moby Dick to none other than Stephen Colbert.
So, will I see whales leaping from the harbor in Iceland? Hopefully. But I for sure won’t be harpooning them. At least I can say that we’ve improved in some ways collectively as a people (although Sea World makes me think twice…)